Looking at MSD's 'What About Me?' Youth Health and Wellbeing Survey 2021

Recently the Ministry of Social Development released the results of What About Me?   - a nationwide survey on the health and wellbeing of nearly 8,000 young people in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We took a look at the data to see what it means for disabled young people. 

Experience of disabled and Rainbow young people

A key finding from the survey was that compared with other groups of young people, disabled, and rainbow young people were more likely to struggle with many aspects of their lives and were less able to express their identity. It is likely that those with intersectional identities - such as being disabled and a member of the Rainbow community may struggle even more. 

How we got the data

It's important to note that the disability data in this survey is able to be reported because the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) and the Disability Data and Evidence Working Group have been advocating for inclusion of the Washington Group Short Set Group (WGSS) of questions in government-funded surveys. 

The WGSS provides a statistically sound mechanism for disaggregating disabled peoples’ responses to surveys.

The work on advocating for better disability data within government funded surveys is a response to Article 31 “Statistics and data collection” of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD). 

The intention of Article 31 is that governments better understand the experiences of disabled people to inform policy and service development and to achieve better outcomes for disabled people.

It provides data that enables ODI to provide evidence of progress or otherwise aligned to the outcomes in the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

Importantly it creates evidence and insights for government agencies in their policy and service development so that across government agencies are looking to achieve better outcomes for priority population groups or population groups whom have traditionally been underserved by government policy and services.

At a practical level when ODI is providing advice on other government agencies’ policy and Cabinet papers we are able to advise on disability data that should be considered within the policy development.

The data and evidence should inform child and youth well-being, education, policy makers.

Summary of results for disabled young people

What about me? tells us that disabled young people in New Zealand experience poorer outcomes to young people who are not disabled across several areas:

Living conditions

  • More likely to worry about essential items at home (e.g., 35% of disabled young people worried about not having enough money to buy kai/food vs. 22.5% overall)
  • More likely to have moved in the last 12 months, and to live in poorer quality housing (e.g., disabled young people were less likely to agree they lived somewhere that was not damp with a rating of 8.2 out of 10, vs. 8.5 overall, and less likely to agree they lived somewhere without mould with a rating of 7.9 compared to 8.5 overall).

Mental health and wellbeing

  • More likely to experience serious distress (55.9% of disabled young people reported a score of 13 or more out of 24 vs. 27.9% overall)
  • Higher rates of feeling overwhelmed (74.9% of disabled young people felt overwhelmed or so down they couldn’t cope vs. 48.6% overall, and 49.2% seriously thought about attempting suicide vs. 26.4% overall)
  • Less likely to experience good to excellent wellbeing (29.2% of disabled people reported a score of 13 or more out of 25 vs. 57.7% overall)
  • Feeling less of a sense of belonging in their community (disabled young people provided a rating of 6.3 out of 10 vs. a rating of 7.2 overall)
  • Feeling less able to express their identity (disabled young people provided a rating of 6.2 out of 10 vs. a rating of 7.3 overall)
  • More likely to have used drugs (10.6% of disabled young people had smoked synthetic cannabis in their lives vs. 5.4% overall; 19.8% of disabled young people had used prescription drugs in a way they were not intended to be used vs. 9.2% overall; and 15.7% of disabled young people used other drugs that can cause a high or trip vs. 8.5% overall)

Social support

  • Less likely to have someone to turn to (72% of disabled young people reported they had an adult family, friend, or whanau member to turn to vs. 83% overall)

Exposure to harm

  • More likely to have been involved with Oranga Tamariki (25% of disabled young people reported they or someone in their family had been involved vs. 17% overall)
  • Less likely to feel safe online (disabled young people gave a rating of 7.0 out of 10 in terms of feeling safe vs. a rating of 7.6 overall)
  • More likely to experience yelling/swearing and physical harm/hitting at home (62.3% of disabled young people said adults in the place where they live have yelled or sworn at them vs. 46.2% overall, and 17.8% report adults at home have hit/physically hurt them vs. 9.6% overall)
  • More likely to experience unwanted sexual contact (32% of disabled young people said they had been touched in a sexual way or made to do sexual things they didn’t want to vs. 18.6% overall)
  • More likely to experience bullying (50.3% of disabled young people experienced bullying in the last 12 months compared to 36.8% overall).

Overall, these findings mirror what we see in other studies among the adult population in New Zealand, for example in administrative data from the Ministry of Health, the General Social Survey and the Crime and Victims Survey. What about me? shows us that what disabled adults feel and experience, is being felt and experienced by young disabled adults.[1]

Targeted initiatives and support for disabled young people that aim to reduce exposure to harm, increase social support, bolster mental health and wellbeing, and improve living conditions will have flow-on effects on the wellbeing of the disabled adult population.

Methodology of the study and caveat for interpreting findings

What about me? was administered by Malatest International on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development, who surveyed 7,209 young people in years 9 to 13 in their schools during 2021. Another 502 youth of the same age completed surveys in their communities (e.g., alternative education).

Disability was measured using the Washington Group Short Set (WGSS) that captures six areas of functional impairment. Many young people captured in the disability threshold had a cognitive impairment (73% reported a lot of difficulty remembering or concentrating and 7% reported they cannot do it at all, compared to the second most prevalent impairment with 17% reporting a lot of difficulty communicating and 4% reporting they cannot do it at all). The report notes that this may have been due to young people interpreting and answering the question differently. This has an impact on the number of young people captured in the definition (26% of the sample) and is likely to impact the size of the differences observed in outcomes between disabled and non-disabled young people.

[1] Note there is a slight overlap of populations, with the GSS and NZCVS looking at 15+ and the YHWS including students up to Year 13.

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