Mental Health in Australia: Psychological Distress Reported in Six Consecutive Cross-Sectional National Surveys From 2001 to 2018

Joanne Enticott, Shrinkhala Dawadi, Frances Shawyer, Brett Inder, Ellie Fossey, Helena Teede, Sebastian Rosenberg, Ingrid Ozols AM, Graham Meadows

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Purpose: To examine Australian psychological distress trends from 2001 to 2017/18, including analysis by age, sex, location, and household income. Methods: Secondary analysis of the working age population (18–64 years) in six successive representative national health surveys. Measures were prevalence of psychological distress at very-high symptom level (defined by a Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) score of 30 or more) and combined high/very-high level (K10 score of 22 or more). Very-high K10 scores are associated with mental health problems meeting diagnostic thresholds in past year. Results: From 2001 to 2017/18 Australian rates of K10 very-high distress rose significantly from 3.8 to 5.1% and combined high/very-high from 13.2 to 14.8%. In women aged 55–64, very-high distress rose significantly and substantially from 3.5 to 7.2% and high/very-high distress from 12.4 to 18.7%. In men aged 25–34, very-high distress increased from 2.1 to 4.0% and high/very-high from 10.6 to 11.5%. Income was strongly and inversely associated with distress (lowest vs. highest quintile adjusted OR 11.4). An apparent association of increased distress with regional location disappeared with adjustment for income. Conclusion: Australia’s population level of psychological distress increased significantly from 2001–2017/18, with levels highest in women and with rates inversely associated with income. This is likely to be indicative of increased community rates of mental disorders. Given that this has occurred whilst mental healthcare expenditure has increased, there is an urgent need to reconsider how best to respond to mental illness, including targeting the most vulnerable based on social determinants such as age, gender, and lower incomes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number815904
Number of pages14
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022


  • mental health
  • mental health services
  • population measures
  • prevalence
  • psychological distress

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