Is mental ill-being increasing?

One much-publicised finding of the National Health Survey carried out by the ABS is that the self-reported mental health of Australians is declining. In the 1995 survey, 5.9% of the sample reported ‘mental and behavioural problems’, which increased to 9.6% in 2001 and 10.7% in 2004-05. An earlier ABS survey, carried out in 1989-90, came up with lower figures than 1995 – 3.8% reporting ‘nerves, tension, nervousness, emotional problems’ and 0.9% reporting depression. However, its question was different so comparisons should be made with caution.

The rapid increase has led to widespread concern, but also suspicion that there is something wrong with the numbers. Will Wilkinson has long argued that the depression trends (which are similar in the US) are fishy because they don’t match the happiness data. If there was a big increase in depression there should be a substantial increase in those with lower happiness ratings in subjective well-being surveys, but there is not in the US or UK.

In Australia, it’s harder to test this hypothesis because of inconsistent survey formats. In 1983 and 1984, two surveys giving very/fairly/not too happy options found 6% giving the ‘not too happy’ response. The two most recent surveys, the 2003 and 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, used 0-10 scales. If we count 0 to 4 as ‘unhappy’ we get 6.5% and 8.2% of respondents respectively as ‘unhappy’. The 2003 survey would seem to show little change in 20 years, consistent with what Will finds. The 2005 survey shows a more significant change. But both are below the mental problems reported in the National Health Survey.
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