Public Awareness Has Failed To Improve Australia’s Mental Health

A quarter of the years Australians spend ill are due to mental health conditions.
GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTOA quarter of the years Australians spend ill are due to mental health conditions.

One in every five Australians has a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, a large-scale global health study has found.

And while we are world-leaders in treating heart disease, stroke and cancer and our life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, as a nation we’re failing to improve our mental health.

These are among the findings of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study for 2016, published in The Lancet on Friday.

The study is the largest and most comprehensive analysis of health and life expectancy globally, covering more than 130 countries.

It found that 1.1 billion people globally have a mental illness, affecting all nationalities regardless of socioeconomic status.

Key Findings Of The Global Burden Of Disease Study 2016:

  • Life expectancy for Australian women is 84.6 years — up one year in the last decade;
  • Life expectancy for an Australian man born in 2016 is 80.5 — up 1.6 years since 2006;
  • But, we’re spending more of those extra years (12 on average for women, 10 for men) sick or disabled;
  • 1.1 billion people worldwide have a mental illness. In Australia, it’s one in five;
  • Poor diet is a cause of one in five deaths worldwide;
  • In Australia, the top five causes of premature death are: heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, self-harm and Alzheimer’s.

Worldwide, treatment for mental illnesses remain low, but even in countries where treatment rates have improved, the prevalence of common mental disorders like depression has changed little.

And Australia is no exception, co-founder of the study, University of Melbourne Laureate Professor Alan Lopez, told HuffPost Australia.

“We don’t seem to be making much improvement in reducing the burden of mental illness in Australia. It seems to have been relatively stable over the last two or three decades,” he told HuffPost Australia.

“Australia has put in place bold public health measures like tobacco control, drink driving legislation, regulation and enforcement and treatments for blood pressure — bringing down some of the big risks that cause the disease burden.

“Where we’ve been less successful — but indeed, most countries have been less successful — is in attacking mental health and musculoskeletal conditions (i.e. back pain, neck pain and arthritis).”

The findings come just one day after the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) announced that mental health is now the number one condition dominating GPs’ time.

“It is not musculoskeletal problems patients are presenting with most often, or cardiovascular disease – the stock standard medical presentations we always hear about,” RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel said.

“It is psychological issues GPs are dealing with most of the time.”

Australians are living longer than ever, outlived only by the populations of Japan, Switzerland and Spain. But we’re also spending more of those extra years sick or disabled, the Global Burden of Disease study indicated.

The average Australian man born in 2016 will live to the age of 80, but around a decade of that will be spent in ill-health or with a disability.

For women, the picture is even worse — they will live, on average, to 84.6, but just 72 of those years will be spent in good health.

And mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug and alcohol abuse disorders are a huge reason for that, accounting for almost a quarter of the total number of years spent in ill-health by Australians.

Professor Lopez attributes this in part to the current difficulties in treating mental illness.

“There’s no easy fix for mental health issues. Their epidemiology, the age at which they begin and just the fundamental nature of mental illness means that it is an intensive care, long treatment process,” he explained.

“And people don’t always go for treatment as well — often they just live with their disability.”

Not only is this bad news for Australians — it’s also going to put more pressure on the public health system.