Mental health: a silent pandemic among NZ’s youth

group of young people having a discussion

Mental health conditions amongst Aotearoa New Zealand youth have doubled in the past decade with mental health experts describing it as “a silent pandemic of psychological distress.”

The psychologists and academics are calling for urgent action to better understand the rapid rise in mental health issues, the factors that impact on youth mental health, and effective strategies for prevention and intervention.

In a commentary, Youth Mental Health in Aotearoa New Zealand: Greater Urgency Required produced by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, authors Sir Peter Gluckman, Professor Richie Poulton and Rochelle Menzies say there is a largely silent and rapidly escalating pandemic of mental distress amongst the global youth population.

“Mirroring these global trends, the last decade has seen a rapid and concerning rise in psychological distress and suicide among youth in Aotearoa New Zealand.  We do not understand yet the reasons for the very rapid rise. The yet unknown impacts of Covid-19 on youth are likely to be extensive and enduring, exacerbating already declining mental wellbeing,” the commentary says.

Sir Peter, Director of Koi Tū, a think tank and research centre at the University of Auckland, says it’s unacceptable that close to a quarter of New Zealand’s youth surveyed are reportedly mentally unwell and that the issue hasn’t received the attention and actions it deserves.

He and Professor Poulton are calling for a new fit-for-purpose baseline study of children and adolescents to understand the context and conditions underpinning the mental health of New Zealand’s youth in order to develop effective, targeted interventions.

Professor Poulton, who is a Koi Tū affiliate member, heads up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit and is Co-Director of the National Centre for Lifecourse Research at the University of Otago.

He says Covid-19 has added fuel to the fire, and protecting and promoting mental wellbeing for youth is now a matter of urgency for the Government and health officials.

“These issues predated Covid-19, but Covid came along and just poured psychological gasoline on an already vulnerable group,” says Professor Poulton.

The commentary follows release of the preliminary findings of the Youth19 survey of 7,721 school students aged 13-19 years.  That survey paints a bleak picture of youth mental health and wellbeing, with 23% (29% of females and 17% of males) reporting symptoms of depression, approximately twice the rate in 2012 (17% and 9% respectively).

Similarly, 6% of the 2019 cohort (7.3% of females and 5% of males) reported they attempted suicide in the previous 12 months, which for males is twice the rate (2.2%) reported in 2012.

The rates and rate of rise are similar to those reported internationally.

Aotearoa New Zealand also faces unique challenges around the mental health of Māori and Pasifika youth, particularly for females who are disproportionately burdened. The Youth19 study found 38% of Māori and 37% of Pasifika females reported depression compared to 24% of Pākehā females, highlighting growing ethnic inequities in mental health.

Among the Rainbow (T&LGBTQA) young persons surveyed, a staggering 57% reported experiencing symptoms of depression.

“During these times of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, we need targeted efforts to promote greater wellbeing and brighter futures for our increasingly vulnerable youth population,” Sir Peter says.

You can read the full Koi Tū commentary here.

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