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Mental health is a key component of overall health and wellbeing (WHO 2021). Mental ill-health affects and may be affected by multiple socioeconomic factors, such as a persons’ access to services, living conditions, and employment status. These factors not only impact the individual but also their families and social support networks (AIHW 2022).
The National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHW) is a component of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study (IHMHS) funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. Data for the NSMHW was collected as part of the ABS’ Survey of Health and Wellbeing (SHWB) which were collected in two cohorts. The 2020–21 cohort is the first cohort for the study and was conducted between December 2020 and July 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collection for the second cohort started in December 2021 and will finish in late 2022.
The NSMHW collected information on:
- lifetime and 12-month prevalence of selected mental disorders
- level of impairment for these disorders
- health services used for mental health problems, such as consultations with health practitioners or visits to hospital
- suicidality and self-harm behaviours
- demographic and socio-economic characteristics of people.
The sample of persons surveyed as part of the first cohort of the NSMHW is small, with less than half as many respondents compared with other recent sources of veteran mental health data such as the 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS) (5,554 persons sampled in the 2020–21 NSMHW compared with 13,300 persons in the 2020–21 NHS). To maintain high data quality and comparability with other long-term health conditions, the 2020–21 NHS has been used to report on veteran mental health throughout the other sections of this report. This information will be updated using the combined sample from both NSMHW cohorts once it becomes available.
Prevalence of mental disorders
ABS analysis of the 2020–21 NSMHW data set estimated that there were around 622,000 people1 aged 16–85 in Australia who have ever served in the ADF, representing 3.2% of the overall population. Of those:
- Around 1 in 7 (14%) had a 12-month mental disorder2, compared with over 1 in 5 (22%) who had never served.
- Of those who had ever served and had a 12-month mental disorder:
- 8.9% had an anxiety disorder, compared with 17% of those who had never served.
- 4.4% had an affective disorder, compared with 7.4% of those who had never served.
- #1.2%3 had a substance use disorder, compared with 3.3% of those who had never served (ABS 2022a).
AIHW has undertaken additional analysis of the 2020–21 NSMHW data set, focussing on those aged 18 years and over to align with other sections in this report. This 2020–21 NSMHW data set estimated that there were around 610,000 people1 aged 18 years and over in Australia who have ever served in the ADF, representing 3.2% of the population.
The findings from AIHW’s analysis indicate that of persons1 aged 18 years and over:
Consultations with health professionals for mental health
- Nearly 1 in 5 (17%) of those who had ever served in the ADF self-reported having at least one mental-health related consultation with any health professional in the last 12 months. This was similar to those who had never served (17%) (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b).
Self-management strategies for mental health
Social connectedness was similar between those who had ever served in the ADF and those who had never served in the ADF. In the four weeks prior to the NSMHW:
- Almost all survey respondents had done activities with family or friends (93% ever served and 94% never served).
- Over 4 in 5 (83%) of those who had ever served in the ADF reported having an excellent or very good ability to get support from family or friends when they need it, a rate similar to those who had never served (82%).
- Around 66% of those who had ever served in the ADF reported having an excellent or very good sense of being part of a group or community. This was similar to those who had never served (64%).
- Around 2 in 5 (#43%3 ever served and 38% never served) had participated in a club.
- Nearly 20% of those who had ever served, and 13% of those who had never served, had volunteered.
- Around 1 in 6 (14% ever served and 15% never served) had felt lonely (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b).
- Around 1 in 15 (6.4%) of those who had ever served in the ADF self-reported having self-harmed in their lifetime, compared with around 8.5% of those who had never served (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b).
Lived experience of suicide
Rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviours over the lifetime were similar between those who had ever served in the ADF, and those who had never served in the ADF:
- Less than 1 in 5 (19% ever served and 16% never served) had experienced suicidal thoughts.
- Less than 1 in 10 (8.6% ever served and 7.7% never served) had made suicide plans.
- Less than 1 in 12 (7.8%) of those who had ever served, and less than 1 in 20 (4.7%) of those who had never served, had attempted suicide (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b).
There may be potential for future in-depth analyses of this study, to further examine the mental health and wellbeing of veterans using the combined sample from both NSMHW cohorts which may allow for further disaggregation of variables by mental health status and other topics within the study once the data become available (ABS 2022c).
1 Males and females combined.
2 Persons who met criteria for diagnosis of a lifetime mental disorder (with hierarchy) and had sufficient symptoms of that disorder in the previous 12 months. A person may have more than one 12-month mental disorder.
3 Proportions marked with a hash (#) have a high margin of error (MoE) and should be interpreted with caution. A high MoE is considered as greater than 10%.