Understanding the mental health and wellbeing of Australians

12 December 2019
What insights can we expect from our next national survey?
Associate Professor Tim Slade, Director of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Matilda Centre looks at what we learnt from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing and what to expect from the next one.
A/Prof Tim Slade

Associate Professor Slade is passionate about understanding causes and risk factors for mental health problems.

The most recent nationally representative Australian mental health survey, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB), was undertaken in 2007. In August 2019 Health Minister Greg Hunt MP released the Australian Government’s Long Term National Health plan, which will involve carrying out the next generation of nationally representative surveys. This month we spoke to Associate Professor Tim Slade, Director of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre, who played a key role in analysing results from the 2007 survey.

What did we learn from the 2007 NSMHWB?

The most recent Australian mental health survey was carried out nearly 13 years ago. One of the key findings from the survey was that close to half of all Australian adults will meet criteria for common mental disorders such as anxiety, mood or substance use disorders in their lifetime. Approximately 3.2 million Australians had experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in the 12 months before the survey . Critically, this survey showed that two thirds of the people experiencing a mental disorder in the previous 12 months did not seek help from any health professional for their mental health problems. These findings demonstrate a clear and pressing need to improve treatment rates for common mental disorders.  

Findings from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing

Findings from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing

How do surveys like the 2007 NSMHWB inform our healthcare system?

Australia has instituted a number of primary mental healthcare reforms in response to the high level of burden and low levels of treatment associated with mental disorders. One of these is the Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (Better Access) initiative, which was introduced in November 2006.

Data from the 2007 NSMHWB showed that immediately following its role out, the Better Access initiative appeared to be successful, reaching people who had not previously received psychological services and at the same time not selectively treating socioeconomically advantaged people. However, this initiative was in its infancy when the 2007 NSMHWB survey was carried out.

What insights do you think the next national survey will offer?

Nationally representative surveys of the general population are a vital source of data to improve our understanding of the distribution and impact of mental disorders. Surveys of this kind are crucial because they provide data among the whole population, not just those who are seen by mental health professionals. They allow us to determine which subgroups of the population are not receiving the mental health services they might need.

For the next survey, plans are in place to use similar methodology to the 2007 NSMHWB.

The new survey is a very welcome announcement because it will provide contemporary data on the prevalence and impact of mental disorders in Australia, and it will allow us to evaluate the longer-term impacts of mental healthcare reforms such as Better Access.

You can read more about findings from the 2007 NSMHWB online via the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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