For the past 10 years, the number of people going to hospital for mental health treatment has been steadily rising. Without simplifying a huge conversation, this is a snapshot of what's going on in Australia.
This increase includes all Aussies – but there are concerning spikes for certain groups and many are seeking hospital treatment more than once. For example, admissions for girls aged 12 to 17 more than doubled from 2007 to 2020. Boys that same age nearly doubled as well.
The length of time a patient stays in hospital will depend on what care they need. However, between 2019 to 2020 the average length of a stay was 15 days.1
With admission rates increasing this fast, it’s worthwhile unpacking what’s going on, and what you should know.
In this article
What is a mental health-related hospital admission?
When you think about mental health treatment, it’s easy to picture the quiet office of a psychologist or counsellor. Consultations like this are common, and they can help manage day-to-day mental health care requirements.
But what happens in a mental health emergency? What happens if someone needs looking after for days or weeks to get healthy?
In these cases, someone can be admitted to hospital for mental health treatment.
In the medical world, this is called a mental health-related hospital admission.
They might stay for part of a day, or they might stay for weeks – the average length of stay in 2019-2020 was 15 days.
Why are Australians going to hospital for mental health?
Between 2019 to 2020, the five most reported diagnoses for overnight mental health related hospitalisation with specialised psychiatric care were:1
- Bipolar affected disorders
- Mental and behavioural disorders due to other psychoactive substance use
Between 2019 to 2020, the five most reported diagnoses for overnight mental health related hospitalisation without specialised psychiatric care were:1
- Mental behavioural disorders due to alcohol abuse
- Other organic mental disorders
- Mental and behavioural disorders due to other psychoactive substances
- Depressive episode
Who’s going into hospital and what for?
- Ages 18-23 and ages 35-44
In 2019–20, the rate of overnight mental health-related hospitalisations with specialised psychiatric care was highest for patients aged 18–24 years and 35–44 years (108.1 and 104.3 per 10,000 population respectively)1
Overall, the rate was higher for females than males, but there is variation across individual age groups.
- Rapid increase in teenagers
Between 2006-07 and 2019–2020, the rate of overnight hospitalizations for females (aged 12-17) more than doubled. The rate for males of the same age group nearly doubled, with an increase of 72 per cent.1
- Rapid increase in over 85s
But it’s not just the young who are affected. The statistics for people aged 85 or older also reflect a significant rise. Between 2006–07 and 2019–20, there was an 85 per cent increase per 10,000 population in overnight mental health-related hospitalisations without specialised care.1
Amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the patient rates of overnight mental health-related hospitalisations with and without specialised care were 2.4 and 2.5 times the rates for non-Indigenous patients.1
What happens in hospital?
Exactly what happens depends on the mental health condition, and its severity.
But generally, these admissions fall into two categories: ‘without specialist care’ and ‘with specialist care’.
Patients are regularly reviewed by their healthcare team, and new therapies suggested where possible.2
- Without specialised care
If a patient is hospitalised but doesn’t receive care in a specialist psychiatric ward, their care is classified as ‘without specialist care’.3 For example, a patient with a mental illness may be admitted to another area of the hospital such as a medical or surgical ward where staff are not specifically trained for care of the mentally ill (e.g. for a heart condition or a wound).
- With specialised care
Hospitalised patients who receive specialised care are looked after in a dedicated psychiatric unit by a team of specialist health professionals. These health professionals help assess, diagnose, treat patients and make plans for their ongoing care.
As part of their treatment, patients will receive therapeutic interventions and programs. They will learn more about their illness and how to manage it using coping strategies to move towards recovery.3
Is the health care system keeping up?
Increasing numbers of people are affected by mental health issues. Yet, Australia’s healthcare system is still inadequate in meeting people’s mental health care needs.
In fact, only 63% of mental health-related emergency department admissions were seen on time in 2020-2021.1
Factors causing issues in the hospital system include:
- Lack of qualified mental health professional
- Lack of mental health beds
- Discharge from hospital too quickly
- Lack of intensive treatment options and follow up care
- Lack of inpatient units5
Why aren’t people getting preventative care?
Limited care options means that people are falling through the gaps. Sometimes this means that they’re not treated until they reach crisis.
Since the pandemic, 90% of psychologists in the APS reported an increase in wait times. Half of them reported a wait time of longer than 3 months.4
Some of the barriers to preventative care include:1
- Lack of access to private services such as psychologists and psychiatrists
- Difficulty navigating the health system
- Lack of culturally appropriate services, particularly for youth and Indigenous people
- Lack of early intervention programs in schools and workplaces
- Lack of incentive for rural and remote psychiatrists
- Lack of inpatient units
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, remember that help is available. Talk to your GP and find out about options that can help support you.
How can I access a psychologist?
A good first step is to talk to your GP. They can create a mental health treatment plan and refer you to a psychologist in your area.
You don’t have to have a doctor’s referral to book an appointment with a psychologist, but you will need it if you want to access a Medicare rebate.
There are two main options that can help with the cost of psychology appointments:
- Medicare may give you a rebate for up to 10 sessions (this was reduced from 20 sessions as of Jan, 2023) with a mental health professional per calendar year.4
- Private health insurance can pay benefits towards sessions with a psychologist or clinical psychologist which can be especially supportive and provide peace of mind moving past your 10 sessions on a mental health treatment plan. Benefits are based your annual limit. Find out more about HBF extras cover for mental health.
Note: You cannot “double dip” by claiming with Medicare and private health insurance for the same appointment. It’s one or the other.
Learn more about HBF mental health cover and how it could help you.
How to protect yourself and your children
Looking after your own mental health is important.
Things that can help include:
- Eating well
- Doing daily physical activity
- Doing hobbies or things you enjoy
- Managing stress, anxiety and anger
- Establishing a good support network
- Establishing healthy sleep habits
Looking after your children’s mental health is important for their overall wellbeing and helps them build the skills needed to live healthy, happy lives.
Things you can do to help them include:
- Building positive relationships with them
- Listening and talking with them daily
- Spending time with them doing things they love
- Helping them develop good problem solving skills
- Encouraging them to speak openly about their problems
- Helping them establish healthy eating and exercise habits
- Ensuring they get adequate, quality sleep
When to go to hospital for mental health issues
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, or is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 000 or go to the nearest emergency department.
Explore HBF mental health cover
Find health cover that includes mental health services, for extra support when you need it most.
Find out more
This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.