Mental health and young people: briefing paper plain language summary

A plain language summary of the mental health and young people quality use of medicines briefing paper.

What is this briefing paper?

This paper describes key issues in caring for the mental health of young people aged 16–24 years. The main focus of this paper is on issues related to the role of medicines and other treatments for anxiety and depression. It gives some reasons why it is hard for young people to get the best care. It also suggests what might help. This paper has been developed for researchers, mental health groups, health professionals and government.


What do we know about mental health in young people?

Mental health problems are common in young people

More young people are having mental health problems than ever before. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more young people have been seeking help for their mental health.

It is better to get help early

Mental health problems can affect all parts of a young person’s life. This includes study, work, relationships and physical health. They can also lead to a higher chance of suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people in Australia.

There can be life-long effects

Most mental health problems start in childhood and teenage years. Most adults with a mental health condition first notice problems before the age of 24 years.

Getting the right care can support the health and wellbeing of young people today and later in life.


What do we know about treatments?

There are many treatments that can help depression and anxiety in young people. Psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can be useful. Healthy lifestyle changes, like sleeping well and being active, are also helpful.

Medicines for young people with anxiety or depression have not been well studied. It is less clear how helpful they are. Medicines are not recommended as the first choice of treatment for young people with mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression. Several Australian studies have shown increased general practitioner (GP) prescribing of medicines for depression and anxiety for young people over the last 10 years.


What have we learnt?

In 2022 NPS MedicineWise started a program called Mental health and young people: opportunities to empower and engage. Many resources are available for consumers and health professionals here.

The program helps health professionals and people in the community to learn and do more about this problem. The Australian Government Department of Health funds the program.

Research by NPS MedicineWise and others found common factors that affect the care of young people.

What can make it harder?

It can be hard for young people with mental health problems to get the care they need. This can impact on the way medicines are prescribed and used. Some issues are:

  • Long waiting lists for mental health services. This has become an even greater problem during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Cost of mental health treatment. There are many costs that can make treatments hard for young people to afford. Travel and time are other costs that young people may struggle with.
  • Not knowing that non-medicine treatments can be helpful, such as psychological treatments, sleep, healthy eating and exercise.
  • Not knowing about local support services or online programs that can help.
  • Some people live in rural and remote areas. They often have to travel a very long way to see mental health professionals.
  • Not having a regular doctor for support and follow-up. Many young people do not ask for help until they are in crisis.
  • Lack of clear guidelines about the use of medicines for depression and anxiety in young people. When information is not clear it can cause worry about what is helpful and what is harmful.

What can help improve care?

  • Teaching young people about helpful non-medicine treatments, like sleep and exercise.
  • Having information about how online treatments, like online CBT, can help and getting young people to try them.
  • Giving health professionals ideas on how to talk with young people who have depression or anxiety.
  • Helping young people feel more confident about taking part in their own care.

What else can we do?

The mental health of young people is a national health priority in Australia. But we need to do more.

This briefing paper gives examples of other things that can be done:

  • Give health professionals more information about how to work with young people with mental health issues.
  • Make it easier for young people to find health professionals who can help.
  • Make sure young people and their carers know about what can help them manage and treat mental health issues.
  • Let more people know about online mental health services and treatments.

The full version of the briefing paper is available below.