The fear in the pit of Niharika Hiremath’s stomach would not go away. Even as she lay on the couch after a long day at work, it was there. Her palms were sweaty, her heart was pumping and she felt sick.
The biomedical science student was about 18 when she first experienced anxiety symptoms.
At first the stress was rooted in real events. There was a break-up and pressure to succeed. But as life started to get better, she did not.
“As soon as I woke up in the morning, I had a feeling like something was going to go wrong,” she said.
While older Australians die of heart attacks and dementia, mental health disorders are taking a heavy toll on children and younger adults.
A new Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report has revealed anxiety disorders are the leading cause of ill health and death in girls and women aged five to 44.
Anxiety could start appearing in people at a very young age, said Dr Lyn O’Grady from the Australian Psychological Society, manifesting in physical symptoms such as headache, tantrums, or refusing to go to school.
Recent research has found that, in less than a decade, mental health presentations to some emergency departments have tripled among those aged 10 to 19.
Professor Harriet Hiscock, a paediatrician with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, said parents were bringing their children to hospital without realising they were experiencing anxiety or depression.
“They thought the panic attacks were seizures, or the recurrent tummy aches were a physical problem, when really it was anxiety,” she said.
In other cases, families had tried to seek help elsewhere, Professor Hiscock said, but waiting lists were too long, particularly for children younger than twelve.
She said it could take up to a year to see a paediatrician or psychiatrist in the public system.
Professor Jennie Hudson, director of the Centre for Emotional Health at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said there was still a lot of stigma attached to anxiety, as people associated it with weakness or did not understand the difference between normal feelings of stress and crippling anxiety.
Children diagnosed with anxiety miss about 15 to 16 days of school a year, she said.
“Anxiety disorders cost the Australian government $10.4 billion each year, yet it often gets overlooked because there is a focus on depression or other mental disorders,” she said.
While a small amount of anxiety actually improves performance, Emeritus Professor Gavin Andrews from the University of New South Wales said women were twice as likely to have anxiety disorders, struggling to live a normal life.
He said genetics were partially to blame.
“When we were primitive, guys had to go out and shoot large animals. They had to have low levels of anxiety so they wouldn’t run away,” he said.
“And women had to protect the genetic stock. They had to have high levels of anxiety to say ‘whoah, I don’t like this’, and grab the kids and disappear.”
It is possible to treat anxiety. Experts say the gold standard is cognitive behaviour therapy, and people who can not afford to see a psychologist can still access good courses online.
After becoming so unwell that she was hospitalised, Niharika Hiremath is now in better control of her mental health, and volunteers with youth service Headspace.
She partly attributes increasing anxiety in young women to social media, but pointed out anxiety disorders existed far before the internet.
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