During Sydney’s lockdown last year, David Zhang started noticing a difference in himself.
“I was having some panic attacks, which was completely new to me, and kind of reaching new levels,” he said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Hey, I should probably check in with someone.’”
Now in year 12 and once again in lockdown, Zhang said his 2020 experience exacerbated feelings he had dealt with throughout high school.
After speaking to his GP, Zhang was able to obtain free Medicare sessions with a psychologist. And this year, despite the stress of year 12, he is doing much better.
“They gave me strategies and mechanisms to cope,” he said. “Accessing that support gave me reassurance that I shouldn’t invalidate what I’m feeling … instead I should talk to people like psychologists, like my friends.”
A new survey from Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute, to be released on Wednesday, found one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020.
That was up from one in five or 18.6% in 2012, and 24.4% in 2018. The change from 2019 to 2020 was essentially steady (a 0.2 point decrease), according to the survey of 25,000 people aged between 15 and 19.
Prof Jennie Hudson, the director of research at the Black Dog Institute, said the results showed a gradual increase in young people dealing with mental health issues over time.
That analysis echoed comments from experts who spoke to Guardian Australia about the mental health impact of lockdowns, compared to their health benefits, this month.
“It’s not specifically Covid,” Hudson said. “We know there have been increases in psychological distress [during] Covid. But this was the trend well and truly before Covid started, so I think that’s also an important message.”
Hudson was particularly concerned by the responses from young women.
The report found 34.1% of young women had reported psychological distress in the 2020 survey, compared to 15.3% for young men.
Hudson said there was not clear evidence explaining these trends, though there were some hypotheses – noting that, for example, young women were at a higher risk for violence and continued to deal with gender inequality in many parts of their lives.
More broadly, Hudson said that while many were quick to blame smartphones for worsening mental health among young people, there wasn’t “solid evidence” of a direct link, though it was possible smartphones had affected adolescent sleep patterns.
Hudson also pointed to societal changes – such as people being less connected to community and social groups – and anxiety about the future.
“For young people, Covid has affected them,” she said. “But also climate change has had an impact … [young people] understand that their lives, their futures are different to previous generations’.”
“I’ve kind of adopted the attitude, ‘at least next year will be much better’. Whereas something like climate change is more like, impending doom,” said Zhang, who one day hopes to pursue a career in climate law.
Other experts have also noted the impact of financial distress on a person’s mental health.
Pat McGorry last year argued economic support through the welfare system was a vital component of the Covid response, and Guardian Australia has also reported on the impact of poverty on young people’s mental health.
Worryingly, non-binary young people (55.7%), young people with disabilities (43%) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (34%) were even more likely to report psychological distress.
Young people were most likely to avoid seeking support because they were “scared/anxious to get help”, “feeling embarrassed” or “feeling I can deal with it myself”.
Hudson recommended young people consider what they could do to take back control over their mental health. That meant staying connected with friends, getting enough sleep, trying to follow a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
“Those simple things can be really important,” she said. “And then if they are struggling, then trying to seek help, there are services.”
Hudson noted, though, that waiting lists for clinical services remained a problem.
The report’s recommendations include a call to increase the mental health workforce, as well as early intervention in schools through standardised national mental health screening.
Zhang said he had found solace in meditation, music – he has been learning to play songs by the Beatles and Olivia Rodrigdo on guitar – and exercise. He had built up his running route from 5km to 10km before a foot injury and now lifts weights.
“Having that consistency of [running] every other two days, it’s not just the scientific stuff of releasing endorphins and whatnot,” he said. “I also felt a sense of personal achievement.”
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636