Mental health is a key component of overall health and wellbeing (WHO 2013). The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing conducted in 2007 found that an estimated 1 in 5 (20%) Australians aged 16–85 experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months (ABS 2008). A mental illness can be defined as ‘a clinically diagnosable disorder that significantly interferes with a person’s cognitive, emotional or social abilities’ (COAG Health Council 2017). The term itself covers a range of illnesses including anxiety disorders, affective disorders, psychotic disorders and substance use disorders.

However, a person does not need to meet the criteria for a mental illness or mental disorder to be negatively affected by their mental health (COAG Health Council 2017; Slade et al. 2009). Mental health affects and is affected by multiple socioeconomic factors, including a person’s access to services, living conditions and employment status, and affects not only the individual but also their families and carers (Slade et al. 2009; WHO 2013).

How common is mental illness?

Measuring mental health

The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing was a program of 3 targeted mental health epidemiological surveys that based their classification of mental disorders on existing diagnostic criteria to estimate prevalence (ABS 2008). The 3 surveys included the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, the National Survey of People Living with Psychotic Illness and the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (AIHW 2020). The data obtained from these surveys are due to be updated from 2020–21 as part of the Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study, which will consist of 4 surveys over 3 years (ABS 2019; AHHA 2019). The National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing will update the data on the prevalence of mental disorders from 2007. Another source of information about the mental health of Australians is the ABS’s National Health Survey 2017–18, which provides data on a range of health conditions including mental and behavioural disorders. The National Health Survey estimates are based on self-reported data, and record a participant as having a mental or behavioural condition during the collection period only if it was also reported as long-term (had lasted, or was expected to last, a minimum of 6 months) (ABS 2018).

Together, these surveys provide an overview of the prevalence of mental disorders in Australia.

The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007 estimated that:

  • nearly 1 in 2 (46%) Australians aged 16–85 had experienced a mental disorder during their lifetime
  • 1 in 5 (20%) people who had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime had symptoms in the 12 months before the survey interview. For these people, anxiety disorders were the most prevalent type of disorder (14%), followed by affective disorders (6.2%) and substance use disorders (5.1%)
  • a higher proportion of males than females (48% compared with 43%) had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, however, a higher proportion of females than males (22% compared with 18%) had experienced symptoms in the 12 months before the survey
  • 16–24 year olds (26%) were most likely to have experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in the previous 12 months and 75–85 year olds the least likely (5.9%)
  • over 4 in 10 (43%) people with a disability status of profound or severe core-activity limitation experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in the 12 months before the survey, compared with 17% of people with no disability or limitations (ABS 2008). See Health of people with disability.

The National Survey of People Living with Psychotic Illness 2010 estimated that:

  • 64,000 (or 4.5 cases per 1,000 population) people with a psychotic illness, who were aged 18–64, were in contact with public specialised mental health services in a 12-month period
  • the prevalence of psychotic disorder was higher for males than for females (5.4 and 3.5 cases per 1,000 population, respectively). The age groups with the highest prevalence were 25–34 and 35–44 (5.6 cases per 1,000 population for both age groups) (Morgan et al. 2011).

The Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2013–14 (Young Minds Matter) estimated that, in the 12 months before the survey:

  • 560,000 children and adolescents aged 4–17 (14%) experienced a mental disorder
  • males had a higher prevalence of mental disorders (16%) than females (12%)
  • of the mental disorders experienced by participants, the following were most prevalent: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (7.4%); anxiety disorders (6.9%); major depressive disorder (2.8%); and conduct disorder (2.1%). (Lawrence et al. 2015). See Health of young people.

The National Health Survey 2017–18 estimated that:

  • 1 in 5 (20%, or 4.8 million) Australians reported that they had a mental or behavioural condition during the collection period (July 2017 to June 2018)
  • females reported a higher proportion of mental or behavioural conditions (22%) than males (18%)
  • overall, 15–24 year olds had the highest proportion of mental or behavioural conditions (26%) and 0–14 year olds had the lowest (11%)
  • of those participants who had a severe disability, 58% had a mental or behavioural condition compared with 14% of people with no disability or long-term restrictive health condition (ABS 2018).
     

This chart shows the proportion of persons with a mental or behavioural condition in 2017–18 by age group and sex. For persons aged 0–14 years, males have a higher rate of current long-term mental or behavioural conditions than females. In all other age groups, females have a higher rate than males. This difference is most pronounced for those aged 15–24.

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Impact

Burden of disease

Mental health affects not just the individual but also the wider community. The total burden of a disease on a population can be defined as the combined loss of years of healthy life due to premature death (known as fatal burden) and living with ill health (known as non-fatal burden). Mental and substance use disorders contributed 12% of Australia’s total burden of disease in 2015, making it the fourth highest disease group contributing to total burden. Of the total burden caused by mental and substance use disorders, 98% was due to living with the effects of these disorders (AIHW 2019). Mental and substance use disorders were the second highest disease group contributing to non-fatal burden (23%) after the first-ranked musculoskeletal conditions (25%). See Burden of disease.

Indigenous Australians

There is a substantial difference in the burden of mental health on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians compared with non-Indigenous Australians. In 2011, the years of healthy life lost per 1,000 people due to mental and substance use disorders among Indigenous Australians was 2.4 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians (57.8 compared with 23.6) (AIHW 2016). See Indigenous health and wellbeing.

Suicidality

For individuals who have a mental illness, suicidality—a term that encompasses suicide plans, attempts and ideation—is more prevalent than for those who have no mental illness. According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2007, almost 1 in 12 (8.6%) people with 12-month mental disorders reported being suicidal in the 12 months prior to the survey; 0.8% of people without a 12-month mental disorder reported suicidality in that same period (Slade et al. 2009). Overall, 72% of people who exhibited suicidality had a 12-month mental disorder (ABS 2008). See Suicide and intentional self harm for more information on suicide in Australia.

Comorbidity

A person may also have more than 1 type of condition at a time. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimated that 3.2% of Australians aged 16–85 had experienced more than 1 mental disorder in the previous 12 months, and 11.7% had experienced a mental disorder and a physical condition in the previous 12 months (ABS 2008). See Physical health of people with mental illness for more information.

Treatment and management

See Mental health services for more information on mental health treatment and management in Australia.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on mental health, see:

Visit Mental health services for more information on this topic.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2008. National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: summary of results, 2007. ABS cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Forward work program, 2019–20. ABS cat. no. 1006.0. Canberra: ABS.

AHHA (The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association) 2019. Investment in health surveys, mental health and prevention money well spent. AHHA. Viewed 9 October 2019.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2016. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 2011. Cat. no. BOD 7. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015. Cat. no. BOD 22. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2020. Mental health services in Australia. Canberra: AIHW.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) Health Council 2017. The Fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan. Canberra: Department of Health.

Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven de Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J et al. 2015. The mental health of children and adolescents: report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health.

Morgan VA, Waterreus A, Jablensky A, Mackinnon A, McGrath JJ, Carr V et al. 2011. People living with psychotic illness 2010: report of the second Australian National Survey. Canberra: Department of Health.

Slade T, Johnston A, Teesson M, Whiteford H, Burgess P, Pirkis J et al. 2009. The mental health of Australians 2: report on the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing.

WHO (World Health Organization) 2013. Mental health action plan 2013–2020. Geneva: WHO.