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Surprising decline impacting the middle aged

By January 22, 2024 January 23rd, 2024 No Comments

The mental health of all Australian generations – not just Gen Z – has been in decline since 2010, according to a new study led by the University of Sydney.

Drawing on data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey of 9000 households, researchers assessed how a birth cohort’s mental health changed as they aged.

Generational Differences in Mental Health Trends in the 21st Century compared the mental health, at the same age, of the cohort born in each decade from 1940 to 1990.

The study revealed that people born in the 1990s have poorer mental health for their age than any previous generation, and they do not show improvements in mental health as they age, as experienced by earlier generations.

However, researchers also discovered that the mental health decline since 2010 had impacted those born in the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, even the 1970s.

Study lead author and University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine and Health senior research fellow, Dr Richard Morris, said much of the focus to date had been on the declining mental health of school-aged children and adolescents. Their mental health was expected to eventually improve as they entered adulthood. 

“But this study shows this pattern is changing and that it is not just the kids we need to worry about,” Dr Morris said.

“Our data not only shows a continuing decline in the mental health of the current crop of young people, but continues to affect older generations, today heading into their 40s and 50s. 

“We are not seeing the rebound out of young adulthood that previous generations saw as they aged.”

Study consultant psychiatrist and senior author, University of Sydney Professor of Psychological Medicine Nick Glozier, said the study findings were robust. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, the study had used multiple measures of mental ill-health – although it did not address the cause of this population-level mental health decline.

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” he said. “But what we are looking for is a shared experience that is likely to have impacted all generations or age cohorts at that time, be it in different ways, with young people the most affected.”

The report’s group of authors, who were also from the University of Melbourne and ANU, discussed several local and global challenges that could have impacted the trajectory – including the launch and growth of social media, lack of physical activity and poor sleep, climate change and the changing nature of work.

Although results were likely to reflect megatrends in society, the researchers were unable to account for a possible impact from increased community awareness and less stigma surrounding mental health. 

“This study provides a starting point for more in-depth analysis, and we hope it will encourage other researchers to closely examine the changes that have happened in mental ill-health in Australia in the last decade,” the authors wrote.

“Understanding the context and changes in society that have differently affected young people may inform efforts to ameliorate this trend and prevent it from continuing for emerging cohorts.”

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