The Stats Guy: What the census tells us about mental health in Australia

No other state was reshaped as

No other state was reshaped as Photo: TND

The latest set of census data allows us for the first time to quantify and geographically locate mental health in Australia.

Who reports the worst mental health outcomes? Where should we focus our awareness campaigns? What life circumstances improve outcomes? These questions directly impact the quality of life of millions.

To a degree we are dealing with self-reported health data here. Such data can be a bit unreliable. The ABS avoided such pitfalls as much as possible by asking whether a doctor or nurse diagnosed you with a long-term mental health condition.

The exact question asked in the ABS 2021 Census

The results of our first national mental health stocktake are, quite frankly, shocking. More than 2.2 million people reported a long-term mental health condition – that’s one in 10 (9.6 per cent) Australian residents. As we will see later, the actual count is probably even higher.

Women (11.4 per cent) are more likely to report poor mental health than men (7.6 per cent). The gender gap is especially stark among young adults. At age 23, women (18.6 per cent) are more than twice as likely as men (9.1 per cent) to report chronic mental health issues. One in five women, presumably just entering the workforce, report poor mental health.

At this point we must discuss how to interpret such findings. Two ways of reading the data emerge. The first interpretation says the world we created is harder to deal with for women than for men.

The second interpretation sees men as underrepresented in this dataset. Women might simply be more aware of such issues and less reluctant to seek help.

The suicide rate among men in their 20s is three times higher than it is for women – hardly a sign that young men have better outcomes. Awareness campaigns regarding male mental health are well needed.

Looking at the geography of mental health makes us think about men yet again. The male-dominated towns of Broome (6.4 per cent), Mount Isa (6.4 per cent), Karratha (6.2 per cent), and Port Hedland (5.9 per cent) report the lowest rates of mental health issues. Are these remote industrial towns havens of great mental health? Or are men simply not conditioned to seek help on the issue?

The census data doesn’t allow us to answer this question – I suspect the latter… Lismore (15.9 per cent), even before the devastating 2022 floods, reported the country’s worst mental health outcomes.

Maybe the census data can help us to identify what might improve these outcomes? Let’s hunt down a few solutions.

Can money buy you happiness? It appears so. Richer people are much less likely to report mental health issues. Money makes life easier. Many problems can be solved by throwing money at it. The rich can purchase services that take the edge off during stressful times and they don’t have the soul crushing levels of financial stress that the poorest must endure.

In my humble reading, the data suggests we need much more public spending on mental health. We are talking about freakishly expensive solutions here – think free doctor and therapy visits for anyone with a mental health condition.

Is joining a religion a cheap alternative to expensive therapeutic and medical interventions? Just look at the outstanding mental health outcomes in Buddhists (4.7 per cent), Muslims (4.1 per cent), and Hindus (1.4 per cent)!

I am sorry to tell you that we are most likely seeing a cultural bias of general unawareness at play here. After all, believers of any sort (10.2 per cent) report worse mental health than non-believers (7.6 per cent). Obviously, the issue of religion and mental health deserves several PhD theses in its own right – a paragraph in my column can’t reflect the full picture.

Our next dataset also points to the importance of raising awareness regarding mental health in certain communities. People born in developing, or poor countries report these sorts of issues at very low rates.

Scroll through the table below and you will notice that rich nations and high rates of poor mental health go hand in hand too. Again, this is an issue of awareness and suggests that migrant cohorts from developing countries should be the target of awareness campaigns.

Your kids might drive you mad, but they are fantastic for your mental health. People living in a family with kids (6.5 per cent) report fewer issues than people who live by themselves (15.1 per cent). I suspect that is linked to the search for meaning and purpose in life. When you are driven by any sort of purpose suffering through hard times is easier. Family for many people provides such meaning.

Marriage also seems to be great for your mental health. Married people (7.5 per cent) are much less likely to report poor mental health than unmarried people (14.3 per cent).

Being married suggests you found somebody you can talk to, who can help you through tough times. Issues arise once you separate from your partner (17.8 per cent) and remain high (15.6 per cent) once you have finalised the divorce.

There is a good reason why so many programs encourage you to join peer networks of sort. This is also why Lifeline is such an important service. In our darkest hours we need others to help us view the world from a slightly different, less devastating perspective.

Homeowners (no mortgage 8.4 per cent, mortgage 7.6 per cent) report better outcomes than renters (12.5 per cent). This is like the income effect. Owning your home means you are less likely to experience financial stress, poverty, and you are more in control of your own life.

Our declining homeownership rate directly worsens the mental health of the population. Once again, housing affordability emerges as a cornerstone issue in Australia.

This column was, of course, only a first top-level look at the status quo of mental health in Australia. More work on specific population cohorts is needed.

So far, a rather dark picture emerges. Literally millions of people are impacted. The current count of 2.2 million people is likely an undercount. Men, certain migrant cohorts, and cultural groups are underrepresented. Making housing more affordable (i.e. ensuring fewer people live in economic uncertainty) will improve mental health at scale.

In the meantime, we will need to see many more awareness campaigns targeting very specific cohorts. Awareness of an issue remains the first step in solving it.

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