More than half of mental disorders begin in teenage years

Teaching young people mindfulness and mental health first aid are two things that could make a huge difference.

Youth mental health has been recognised as a priority in New Zealand, but more needs to be done to enhance the wellbeing of young people and reverse escalating suicide rates, according to Professor Max Abbott at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

Professor Abbott says prevention programmes need to be far more widespread and address the major risk factors, including inequality, discrimination, bullying and family violence.

Measures that promote mental wellbeing and resilience need to be strengthened. Teaching young people mindfulness and mental health first aid are two things that could make a huge difference.

The New Zealand Mental Health Survey found that almost 30 percent of people in New Zealand aged 16-24 years had suffered a mental disorder within the past 12 months. This is nearly twice the rate of 45-64 year olds and four times that of people aged 65 years and older.

New Zealand’s suicide rate is around the OECD average, but the country has the highest youth suicide rate and numbers have continued to rise in recent years.

More than half of mental disorders begin by the mid-teens and often go undetected and untreated. Depression, anxiety and harmful use of alcohol and other drugs are most common.

Professor Abbott says the formative years have always been challenging, but never more so.

“A lot of changes take place during those teenage and early-adult years – moving schools, leaving home and starting university or a new job. For many, these changes are positive, but they are also associated with stress and mental health problems,” he says

“Young people are growing-up against a constant backdrop of instability – traumatic world events, disasters and violence. All of this is amplified by digital technologies that present additional risks, such as bullying and gaming addiction.”

He says teens who grow up exposed to sexual abuse, family violence, bullying and discrimination, based on ethnicity, gender or sexual preference, are more likely to develop mental health issues. And, these problems are often long-lasting.