Depressed, suicidal teens not seeking help
More than one in four Australian high school students have experienced signs of clinical depression and other psychiatric conditions, but most are not accessing support from mental health professionals, according to a new study.
The UNSW study — published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease — offers a concerning insight into the lack of mental health support adolescents are accessing, with only 20 to 25% of students with a suggested psychiatric condition saying they had sought help from a general practitioner or a mental health professional.
The anonymous survey, led by UNSW Scientia Psychiatry Professor and Black Dog Institute Founder Gordon Parker AO, asked over 1500 year 11 and 12 Sydney private school students questions relating to mood and anxiety in recent periods and over their lifetime, and collected details about their history of self-harm behaviours, thoughts of suicide and history of being bullied. Professor Parker said the study was conducted in response to community concerns about a number of upper North Shore students committing suicide in previous years.
“We quantified that 26.8% of students met the criteria for major (clinical) depression, 21.5% for social anxiety disorders and 1.0% for a bipolar disorder,” Professor Parker said.
“We also found that thoughts of suicide and previous self-harm were distinctly highest in those with a melancholic depression or bipolar disorder, in comparison to students with the other disorders or no condition at all.”
Among students who had experienced major (clinical) depression, 29% had a history of self-harm and 59% had felt suicidal over their lifetime, and of those with a melancholic depression, 50% had self-harmed and 60% had felt suicidal. Among students with responses that fit the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, 57% had self-harmed and 90% had felt suicidal.
The survey also found that there was a higher rate of suicide and self-harm history in female students: 6.5% of the boys and 19.1% of the girls had self-harmed or taken an overdose of medication, while 26.5% of male students and 33.8% of female students had thought of suicide over their lifetime.
“The study also highlights the grave extent to which bullying occurs and the effects of such vicious personal attacks on vulnerable young people experiencing depression,” Professor Parker said.
Nearly 18% of the boys and 8.5% of girls had experienced bullying about their depression, with higher rates in those with a melancholic depression or a bipolar disorder.
Professor Parker said the study established that the majority of at-risk high school students with such treatable conditions have not sought help. Of the 69 students with either melancholic depression or a bipolar disorder, 52 were currently suicidal but had never had a psychiatric consultation.
“They are therefore unlikely to be aware of their condition and its treatability, and remain at severe risk,” he said.
The anonymous survey was carried out with the consent of parents, school counsellors and principals. Questions were based on a set of guidelines used by psychiatrists and mental health professionals for psychiatric diagnoses, including detailed criteria for major depressive disorder, social anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, while eating disorders were also assessed.
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