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1 November 2023

A new paper published by UNICEF Australia and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) spotlights how Australian children are tracking in their physical and mental health, and shows some concerning gaps when it comes to making Australia a better place for children to grow up in.

"Australia has strong economic, social and environmental conditions when compared to many other countries, but too often this isn’t translating to into good health outcomes for children and young people"

Nicole Breeze
Chief Advocate for Children, UNICEF Australia

“While many Australian children are healthy, we still see poor physical health outcomes and increasingly challenges in mental health – as measured by the Australian Children’s Wellbeing Index. Inequalities remain for marginalised children and young people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, LGBTIQ+ and those from lower socio-economic communities,” said Penny Dakin, CEO of ARACY.

The paper highlights that in positive news:

    • 96% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 94% of Australian children overall are fully immunised at age 5.
    • 80% of children in school from years 4 to 8 rated their health as ‘’good, very good or excellent’’ - but unfortunately this does not translate to healthy behaviours.
    • Risky drinking and illicit use of drugs among young people aged 14 to 24 has decreased significantly from 47% to 30% for drinking, and for illicit drugs from 32% to 24% between 2001 and 2019.

However, the paper also spotlights that:

    • 24% of children aged 5 to 14 were overweight and 8% were obese. Less than 25% of children met the recommended daily physical activity guidelines.
    • 1 in 3 children aged 5 and 6 years already have tooth decay. Despite it being largely preventable, it is the most common chronic illness and the highest cause of preventable hospitalisations.
    • Nearly one-third of 14-to-17-year-olds have used an e-cigarette at least once; and more than 1 in 6 young people reported that they use e-cigarettes products that contain nicotine.

Mental health is a key area of concern:

    • 47% of females and 31% of males aged 16 to 24 experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, while 66% of LGBTQIA+ young people have self-harmed at least once in their life.
    • Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24 years, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people have 3 times higher deaths by suicide.
    • 42% of young people who needed support did not seek it, with stigma and shame listed as barriers.

"Health is influenced by a broad range of factors, so we look at a number of possible solutions to the issues raised, as identified by children and young people themselves, recognising their interest in creating a healthier life for the whole community"

Penny Dakin

“UNICEF Australia supports young people’s recommendations for a number of ways to increase engagement with health services, including making sure health care services are inclusive and youth friendly, investing in peer-based mental health programs, and helping young people to navigate the health system,” said Nicole Breeze from UNICEF Australia.

“When it comes to mental health, young people want mental health and wellbeing integrated into all areas of the school curriculum – and we have seen some positive moves in this area, with the launch of a curriculum connection for mental health and wellbeing from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.”

In 2021 UNICEF Australia and ARACY developed the Children’s Wellbeing Index to provide a picture of how children in Australia are faring across all aspects of wellbeing - and how that is changing over time.

“The wellbeing of children impacts their development now and into the future. We can use the Australian Children’s Wellbeing Index developed by UNICEF Australia and ARACY as a way of measuring the impact of governments policies and investments in children and young people over time,” says Nicole Breeze.

“We call on the government to fund the ongoing use the Index, and to inform the landmark Measuring What Matters reform currently underway, which will help Australia measure the success of our nation beyond purely economic means.”

Notes to editors:

  • In 2021 UNICEF Australia and ARACY developed the Australian Children’s Wellbeing Index to provide a picture of how children in Australia are faring across all aspects of wellbeing - and how that is changing over time.
  • This index used data across six areas from Australia’s wellbeing framework for children and young people to look at: being loved, valued and safe; being healthy; learning; having their basic material needs met; having a positive identity and culture; and, participating in their community and having a voice - to tell the story of Australian children. 
  • The index uses data published by a number of reputable sources, and uses this data to measure and track children’s progress over time, giving a view of where Australia is doing well, and which areas need greater attention and investment to help all Australian children thrive.
  • This paper is the first in a series of occasional papers to deep dive into one critical dimension of the Australians children’s wellbeing: in this instance health.