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Australian youth wellbeing hits all-time low, research finds

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“The one thing that does stand out is Catholic youth actually know who to turn to in those moments of trial or struggle,” said Milal Khalil, team leader of Sydney Catholic Youth. Photo: CNS, Sean Gallagher, The Criterion

Youth aged 18-25 are suffering the lowest sense of wellbeing on record, according to the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, a yearly survey published by Deakin University for the last 21 years.

Australians more broadly experienced a decline in their personal sense of wellbeing across nearly every demographic during 2022, in many cases registering results far below what is considered the “normative range” by researchers for the first time in over a decade.

Unemployed, divorced and separated, people living in poverty on household incomes of less than $30,000, students, casual employees and a variety of other demographic categories all “reported scores below the normal range than usual.”

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The survey noted that many groups had “notably lower scores in 2022 compared to 2020,” with youth, the unemployed, people in poverty, the semi-retired and Queenslanders all hitting “all-time lows.”

Even small negative shifts in subjective wellbeing are a major cause for concern, because of a principle called “psychological homeostasis”—the tendency of most people’s sense of wellbeing to stay relatively stable throughout life.

For example, the personal wellbeing index’s “normal” range is narrow, ranging from just 74.2 to 76.8 percentage points.

Levels of mental distress are also rising—with youth again suffering the most, rising by five percentage points.

“Average levels of mental distress (i.e., feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress) continued to rise in 2022 compared to other pandemic years, with anxiety and stress levels being notably higher than in 2021,” the survey reported.

“In 2022, relative to other age groups, young adults (i.e., 18-25 years) reported the highest levels of mental distress on all three measures.”

The researchers described the impact of events like the war in Ukraine, the threat of climate change, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic and the skyrocketing cost of living crisis as a “polycrisis” that shows no sign of decline.

While Australians remained resilient in the first year of the pandemic, the ability of youth, low-income households and other people in precarious situations to maintain a positive outlook on life has taken a serious hit.

“Immediate attention should be directed to priority groups and young adults who are clearly struggling on multiple fronts, but we should also be monitoring these new groups … It will remain to be seen in the upcoming 2023 survey whether Australians’ subjective wellbeing will further decline or bounce back,” the survey concluded.

Milad Khalil, team leader with Sydney Catholic Youth, said the youth stats were shocking but did not come as a surprise.

“People are genuinely looking and searching for happiness, to satisfy these deep desires they have, and they’re not finding it in worldly things,” he said.

He said youth were struggling to commit to relationships, study and career paths, and it was “as though they’re a little bit lost.”

They are also increasingly isolated and lacking community, and that opportunities for Catholics to get together to meet each other and pray had enthusiastic take-up from youth.

“We know God has not designed us to live in isolation. We’re meant to live in relationship,” he said.

While the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index did not measure religious or spiritual factors as a contributor to wellbeing, Mr Khalil said he noticed a difference between Catholic and non-Catholic youth he encountered—but it “isn’t as distinct as it should be.”

“The one thing that does stand out is Catholic youth actually know who to turn to in those moments of trial or struggle,” he said.

“That’s a big turning point—when they’re really struggling, when they feel they’re hitting rock bottom, they know where to go.”

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