Facts and stats about mental illness in Australia

Click on the links directly below for quick access to information in this section. 

Media IconBrief snapshot of mental illness in Australia 
Mental illness in the adult population
Accessing mental health services / support
Children and young people 
Gender and mental illness
Myths about mental illness 

It’s important that the media are able to present the most accurate information about mental illness to the community. Below is a summary of brief facts about mental illness that media professionals can use within a story or use to provide context for a story.

Please also visit our Story sources and contacts page for organisations which can provide further detailed information and statistics about specific mental illnesses. 

Brief snapshot of mental illness in Australia

  • In each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness.
  • Mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability burden in Australia, accounting for an estimated 27% of the total years lost due to disability.
  • About 4% of people will experience a major depressive episode in a 12-month period, with 5% of women and 3% of men affected.
  • Approximately 14 % of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period.
  • About 3% of Australians are affected by psychotic illness; such as schizophrenia, where there is a loss of contact with reality during episodes of illness.
  • Approximately 2% of Australians will experience some type of eating disorder in their life, with women 9 times more likely than men.
  • About 5% of Australians will experience substance abuse disorders in any 12-month period, with men more than twice as likely as women to have substance abuse disorders.
  • Prevalence of mental illness decreases with age, with prevalence greatest among 18-24 year olds.
  • Women are more likely than men to seek help for anxiety disorders (18% compared with 11%) and mood disorders (7.1% compared with 5.3%).
  • A national survey showed that 35% of people with a mental disorder had used a health service and 29% consulted a GP within the 12 months before the survey.
  • Women are more likely than men to use services for mental health problems.
  • Limited research suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience mental disorders at least as often as other Australians.
  • In Australia, the prevalence of mental or behavioural disorders among people born overseas is similar to those born in Australia.
  • Many violent people have no history of mental disorder and most people with mental illness (90%) have no history of violence.

Mental illness in the adult Australian population1

In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) conducted the second National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. The survey involved approximately 8,800 people aged over 16 years and living in private dwellings in all states and territories of Australia.

  • Almost one in five Australians surveyed had experienced symptoms of a mental disorder during the 12 month period before the survey.
  • Anxiety disorders were most common – 14.4%, followed by affective disorders - 6.2% (of which depression is 4.1%), and substance use disorders – 5.1% (of which 4.3% is alcohol related).
  • The percentage of people meeting the criteria for diagnosis of a mental illness was highest in younger people, with the prevalence decreasing with age. Twenty-six per cent of 18-24 year olds had experienced a mental disorder, while only 5.9% of people aged 65 years and over had experienced a mental disorder.
  • People unemployed or not in the paid workforce had the highest rates of mental disorder, a prevalence rate of 26% for unemployed men and 34% for unemployed women.
  • Those with a mental disorder averaged three days out of role (i.e. unable to undertake normal activity because of health problems) over a four week period. This compared with one day out of role for people with no physical or mental condition.

Accessing mental health services / support2

  • Only 35% of people with a mental disorder had used a health service during the survey period.
  • Hospital admissions for mental health problems were rare – less than 1% over the 12 month period.
  • Women were more likely than men to use services for mental health problems.

The mental health of young Australians3

  • Adolescents with mental health problems reported a high rate of suicidal thoughts and other health-risk behaviours, including smoking, drinking and drug use.
  • Twelve per cent of 13-17 year olds reported having thought about suicide, while 4.2% had actually made a suicide attempt. Females had higher rates of suicidal ideation than males.
  • When it came to use of substances, 23.1% reported smoking, 36.7% reported drinking, and 18% said they had used marijuana.
  • Fourteen per cent of Australian children and adolescents aged 4-17 have mental health or behavioural problems.
  • This rate of mental health problems is found in all age and gender groups. Boys were slightly more likely to experience mental health problems than girls.
  • There is a higher prevalence of child and adolescent mental health problems among those living in low-income, step/blended and sole-parent families.
  • Mental health problems were experienced by 21.1% of males and 22.1% of females with weekly household incomes of less than $580, compared to 8.9% of males and 9.1% of females living in households with a weekly income of more than $1,030.
  • For youth living in step / blended families (25% of males, 19.7% of females) and sole parent families (22.2% of males, 26.7% of females) reported experiencing mental health problems, compared to youth (11.3% of males, 10.7% of females) living with their original parents together.
  • Only one out of every four young persons with mental health problems had received professional health care.
  • Family doctors, school-based counsellors and paediatricians provide the services that are most frequently used by young people with mental health problems. Younger children (4-12) were more likely to visit paediatricians and family doctors, while older children were more likely to visit school-based counselling services.
  • Even among young people with the most severe mental health problems, only 50% receive professional help. Parents reported that help was too expensive or they didn’t know where to get it, and that they thought they could manage on their own.

Gender and Mental Illness4

Men and women experience similar rates of mental illness, but rates are highest for men and women living alone. Similarly, rates of mental disorder were higher among people who were separated or divorced (17% for men and 19% for women).

  • Women are more likely than men to experience anxiety disorders (18% compared with 11%) and affective disorders (7.1% compared with 5.3%).
  • Men were more than twice as likely as women to have substance abuse disorders (7% compared with 3.3%), with alcohol use disorders more common than drug use disorders.
  • Women were more likely to have anxiety and affective disorders in combination.
  • Men were more likely to have substance use disorders in combination with either affective or anxiety disorders.
  • One in five recent mothers will experience a mild, moderate or severe form of post-natal depression.
  • Though men and women are affected by schizophrenia in approximately equal numbers, women tend to experience later onset, fewer periods of illness and better recovery.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder is equally common in males and females.
  • Up to 90% of eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) occur in women.
  • Sexual disorders, especially exhibitionism and fetishism, are much more common in men.
  • Gender differences in different types of mental illness are influenced by cultural backgrounds.

Myths about Mental Illness5

Myth: mental illness is a life sentence

Mental illness is not a life sentence. Most people will recover fully, especially if they receive help early. Some people may require ongoing treatment to manage their illness. 

  • Some people have only one episode of mental illness and recover fully. For others, mental illness occurs only occasionally with years of wellness between episodes. For a minority of those with a more severe illness, periods of acute illness may occur more regularly and, without medication and effective management, leave little room for recovery. 
  • Many kinds of treatment are available. Not all involve medication. 
  • Though some people experience significant disability as a result of a chronic mental illness, many others live full and productive lives while receiving ongoing treatment and medication. 
  • Many people experiencing mental illness delay seeking help because they are frightened by the illness and fear stigma and discrimination. Reducing the stigma will encourage more people to seek help early. 
  • Most people with a mental illness are treated in the community, with most consulting their GPs.

Myth: mental illnesses are all the same

  • There are many types of mental illness, which can be distinguished by clearly defined symptom profiles.
  • Though a particular mental illness will tend to show a certain range of symptoms, not everyone will experience the same symptoms - for example many people with schizophrenia may hear voices, while others may not. 
  • Simply knowing a person has a mental illness will not tell you how well or ill they are, what symptoms they are experiencing, or whether they may recover or manage the illness effectively. 
  • Mental illnesses are not purely 'psychological' and can have many physical features. While a mental illness may affect a person's thinking and emotions, it can also have strong physical effects such as insomnia, weight gain or loss, increase or loss of energy, chest pain and nausea.

Myth: people who are mentally ill are violent

  • Research indicates that people receiving treatment for a mental illness are no more violent or dangerous than the general population. 
  • People living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, especially self-harm. It has been calculated that the lifetime risk of someone with an illness such as schizophrenia seriously harming or killing another person is just 0.005%, while the risk of that person harming themselves is nearly 10%. 
  • There appears to be a weak statistical association between mental illness and violence. This seems to be concentrated in certain subgroups, for example - people not receiving treatment who have a history of violence, and those who abuse drugs or alcohol. However, the association between mental illness and violence is still weaker than the association between violence and alcohol abuse in general, or between violence and being a young male between 15 and 25 years of age.

Myth: some cultural groups are more likely than others to experience mental illness

  • Anyone can develop a mental illness and no one is immune to mental health problems. 
  • People born in Australia have slightly higher rates of mental illness that those born outside Australia in either English-speaking or non-English speaking countries. 
  • Many people from culturally and linguistically diverse and refugee backgrounds have experienced torture, trauma and enormous loss before coming to Australia. These experiences can cause significant psychological distress and vulnerability to mental illness. 
  • Cultural background affects how people experience mental illness and how they understand and interpret the symptoms of mental illness.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being: Summary of results. Catalogue No. 4326.0. Canberra, ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics. [To download PDF click here]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sawyer, M. G., Arney, F. M., Baghurst, P. A.,  Clark, J. J., Graetz, B. W., Kosky, R. J., Nurcombe, B., Patton, G. C., Prior, M. R., Raphael, B., Rey, J., Whaites, L. C., & Zubrick, S. R. (2000). Child and adolescent component of the National survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Canberra, ACT: Mental Health and Special Programs Branch of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care. [To download PDF click here]

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). Op. Cit.

[5] SANE Australia. (2012). Fact Sheet 5: Mental Illness and Violence. South Melbourne, VIC: SANE Australia. [To download PDF click here]

[6] Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Dare, A., & Holland, K. (2008). The Media Monitoring Project: Changes in media reporting of suicide and mental health and illness in Australia: 2000/01–2006/07. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care. [To download PDF click here]