The 2018 Mission Australia Youth Survey was released yesterday. This is a closely-watched and well-regarded window into the concerns, attitudes, and activities of 15-19 year olds in Australia. The survey is well-regarded for its longevity (this is the 17th year running) and its reach (Over 28,000 young people responded to this year’s survey). When everyone seems to have a story to tell about ‘what’s happening with young people today!’, this kind of research helps shift our conversation beyond just trading anecdotes.
So what is there to talk about from the 2018 results?
The headline that Mission Australia is running with is mental health. For the first time in the survey’s history, young people in every state and territory named mental health as the most important issue in Australia today. Overall, the number of young people identifying mental health as a national issue has doubled since 2016 – up from 20.6% to 43.0%. On top of that, each of the top four issues of personal concern to young people relate to mental health: coping with stress (43.1% of young people are either extremely, or very concerned about this), school or study problems (33.8%), mental health (30.9%), and body image (30.4%).
None of this is going to be a surprise to those who work closely with young people. Though I suspect it may prove difficult for the average adult in church to come to grips with. But even if you find it hard to imagine what on earth a 14 year old could be stressed about, the insight from this survey is that stress is reality for many Australian young people, and many of them are finding it difficult to cope. Perhaps its true that the consequences of failing an English essay when you’re 16 are far outweighed by the consequences of being retrenched when you’re 55, or being diagnosed with cancer at 40. But the emotional burden can be just as real, and diminishing the circumstances will do nothing to help.
And when it comes to offering help, the survey has positive things to say about the kind of help that families and church communities can provide for young people. Continuing the results from previous surveys, top of the list of where young people go for help with important issues are friends (84.5%), parents or guardians (76.1%), and relatives or family friend (60.1%). The idea that young people don’t want to engage seriously with adults is more perception than reality; and may be more of an excuse from adults who don’t want to engage, or who are fearful of engaging. Most Australian young people are up for a conversation with parents and other adults about the things that matter to them—which of course is the key: when adults are only up for conversations where adults get to set the agenda, then they’re unlikely to find young people rushing to the party.
Fortunately, the Mission Australia survey gives some helpful direction for things to explore with young people. The big-ticket items of coping with stress, school or study programs, mental health, and body image are all notable aspects of the social environment young Australians are navigating day to day. The rest of the list (Figure 1.7 in the National report) offers a stack of other issues of personal concern to young people that could become topics of conversation.
But that’s not to say that adults will make definite headway by launching into a conversation with, “So, how are you coping with your body image issues?!” At the same time as being items of great concern for many, these same issues are either only slightly concerning, or not at all concerning for others, and often for most others: 43.1% of young people surveyed are concerned about stress, but 31.2% are only slightly or not at all concerned about it; 39.4% are slightly or not at all concerned about school or study problems; 50.1% with mental health, and 43.6% with body image. So if you start with, “Is mental health a personal concern for you?” you’ve got a 1 in 2 chance of getting a conversation-stopping ‘no’ in response.
The danger of large-scale surveys like this is to forget that young people tend not to like being categorised on the basis of large-scale surveys (ironic perhaps, all young people want to be treated as individuals; but it’s true for most of the adults I know as well). So my advice would be against going with “The Mission Australia survey said young people today have a lot of concerns about mental health issues; so what are your concerns about mental health issues which I know you must have because the Mission Australia survey said that you do!” You could perhaps try something more exploratory such as, “The Mission Australia survey said that mental health was one of the major issues of concern for young people. How true is that for you and your friends?”
There are other interesting questions to pursue out of the list of issues of personal concern to young people. Only 15.8% are extremely or very concerned about bullying or emotional abuse; and 67.5% are slightly or unconcerned about it. I wonder if that’s because only 16% are victims of bullying, or because most people are ignorant of how much bullying is actually going on? Only 10% of young people are concerned about LGBTIQ issues, and a massive 72.8% are not at all concerned about these. I wonder then what ‘not at all concerned’ actually means. Is is that 7 out of 10 young people don’t thing LGBTIQ issues are relevant to them, or is it that 7 out of 10 young people consider someone’s sexuality as much of a ‘non-issue’ as whether they’re right- or left-handed? I’m interested to hear how the young people I know might make sense of those figures.
When adults are willing to listen to what’s important to young people, when adults are interested enough to ask young people genuine questions, and when adults are generous enough to respond when young people seek support, and when adults are patient enough to remain present until young people are ready to engage, then life-giving conversations and relationships are likely to follow.