Youth wellbeing – Background

Australia21 Director Richard Eckersley has been analysing young people’s health and wellbeing since writing a seminal report, ‘Casualties of Change: The predicament of youth in Australia’, for the Australian Commission for the Future in 1988. He led Australia21’s two projects on youth and wrote a third report marking the 20th anniversary of the release of the Commission for the Future publication.

The orthodox or ‘official’ story of young people’s health is that it is continuing to improve in line with historic trends. Death rates are low and falling, and most young people say they are healthy, happy and enjoying life. For most, material conditions and opportunities are better. Health efforts need to focus on those whose wellbeing is lagging behind, especially the disadvantaged and marginalised. However, there is another, very different story that can be told from the evidence. It suggests young people’s health may be declining – in contrast to historic trends. Mortality rates understate the importance of non-fatal, chronic ill-health, and self-reported health and happiness do not give an accurate picture of wellbeing. Mental illness and obesity-related health problems and risks have increased. The trends are not confined to the disadvantaged. The causes stem from fundamental social and cultural changes of the past several decades.

Which story is the truer matters. Stories inform and define how governments and society as a whole address youth-health issues. The usual narrative says interventions should target the minorities at risk. The new narrative argues that broader efforts to improve social conditions are also needed.

Report 1

The first Australia21 report on the topic of youth wellbeing, Flashpoints and signposts: Pathways to success and wellbeing for Australia’s young people, sought to identify ways to help young people to optimise their wellbeing and to realise their full potential against a background of often adverse trends in their physical and mental health and wellbeing. The paper identifies a need for greater focus in both research and policy on the following issues: the ‘big picture’ of the broad social changes reshaping life today; holistic approaches to health and wellbeing (rather than just a focus on ill health); a whole of population approach, (rather than just a concern with the marginalised and at-risk); and consideration of the social and cultural resources, as well as the material and economic resources, that impact on wellbeing.

Download Youth Wellbeing Report 1
Eckersley, R, Wierenga, A & Wyn, J 2006, Flashpoints and signposts: Pathways to success and wellbeing for Australia’s young people, Australia21, Canberra.

Report 2

The second project within the youth wellbeing research program takes up themes discussed in the first project: the importance of cultural ‘intangibles’ to wellbeing, and the role of narrative in their lives. This trial of an innovative participatory approach to researching youth futures has a number of implications for further research. The project has demonstrated the value of employing drama as a structured form of research enabling participants to communicate across traditional (eg age and expertise) barriers. In particular, it has provided a process for opening up dialogue on a notoriously difficult topic (futures), enabling the collection of data that moved beyond the stereotypical binary of optimism/pessimism to produce an insight into a more complex positioning of young people on this topic.

Download Youth Wellbeing Report 2
Eckersley, R, Cahill, H, Wierenga, A & Wyn, J 2007, Generations in Dialogue about the Future: The hopes and fears of young Australians, Australia21, Canberra.

Report 3

The health and wellbeing of young people, an important indicator of Australia’s future population health, is declining. Research suggests 20-30% of young people are suffering significant psychological distress at any one time, with less severe stress-related symptoms such as frequent headaches, stomach-aches and insomnia affecting as many as 50%. Mental disorders are the largest contributor to the burden of disease in young Australians, measured as both death and disability, accounting for almost half the burden. In this paper Richard Eckersley investigates ways to optimise young people’s wellbeing.

Download Youth Wellbeing Report 3
Eckersley, R 2008, Never better—or getting worse? The health and wellbeing of young Australians, Australia21, Canberra.



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