Mental Illness


Generally speaking, mental health refers to a person’s state of mind and ability to cope with everyday life and stress. Someone with ‘good’ mental health usually feels capable of dealing with the different everyday situations that they may find themselves in. Good mental health encompasses a sense of wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem and enables a person to fully enjoy and appreciate other people, daily life and their environment. When people are mentally healthy they are able to form positive relationships, use their abilities to reach their potential and deal with the challenges of life.

This is a simplified definition of mental health and it is normal for everyone to experience issues with mental health at times - that is, to go through ups and downs. It is only when the difficulties persist and a person struggles to make them go away that they may be considered a mental illness.


Mental illness is a term used to describe a range of disorders that significantly affect how a person thinks, feels, behaves and interacts with other people. Mental illnesses are generally related to the mind or brain in some way. As the brain is part of the central nervous system it plays an important role in everything we do from walking, sleeping, worrying, hearing and crying, to falling in love. If there is a change in the structure or chemistry of the brain, then the individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour are affected.

Certain behaviours can occur due to changes or stressful events in a person’s life. At times we can all find ourselves being irritable, thoughtless, moody, over-sensitive, emotional, withdrawn or lacking motivation. This does not necessarily mean that we may be experiencing a mental illness. These reactions can all be quite common responses to stressful events. However, if it appears that it is taking a longer time for a person to get over a crisis then it may be important for them to seek help.

Symptoms that may indicate that something more serious is present may include:

  • Total withdrawal from friends, colleagues and family
  • Feeling afraid to leave the home
  • Saying things which do not make sense
  • Significant changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Extreme changes in mood – from excited to very sad
  • Deteriorating performance at work or school
  • Hearing voices or seeking things that no one else can hear or see
  • Spending extravagant or unrealistic amounts of money or talking about unrealistic business, investment ideas or plans.

These symptoms indicate that something serious may be happening for the individual and the person will need to see a General Practitioner (GP) and/or a mental health professional for an assessment.

Mental illness is not a character fault, weakness or a choice the individual makes. It is an illness like any other and a person has a right to expect appropriate medical and other treatment, as well as care and support through their illness.

Diagnosing a mental illness is undertaken by a qualified health practitioner according to standardised criteria. One in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of a mental illness and some of the factors that can contribute to mental health issues include: biological factors such as genetics, chemistry and hormones; early life events such as trauma, neglect and abuse; recent life events such as persistent stress or loss of a loved one; social factors such as isolation, financial problems, family breakdown or violence; internal factors such as constant negative thoughts and low self-esteem; and use of alcohol, drugs and other substances.


Mental illnesses are of different types and degrees of severity. Some of the major types of mental illness include: anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, eating disorders and depression.

The most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depressive disorders. At their most extreme, people with a depressive disorder may not be able to get out of bed or care for themselves physically. People with certain types of anxiety disorder may not be able to leave the house or may have to engage in compulsive rituals to help them alleviate their fears.

Less common are mental illnesses that may involve psychosis. These include disorders such as schizophrenia. People experiencing an acute episode of psychosis lose touch with reality and perceive their world differently from normal. Their ability to make sense of thoughts, feelings, and the world around them is seriously affected.

If you’d like to speak with someone about mental illness, the following helplines can provide valuable assistance:

  • LIFELINE: ☎ 13 11 14 www
    A national 24-hour telephone and online counselling service for all ages, featuring an online chat service.
  • KIDS HELPLINE: ☎ 1800 551 800 www 
    A national 24-hour telephone counselling service for children and young people in Australia. 

  • MENSLINE AUSTRALIA: ☎ 1300 789 978 www
    A national 24-hour telephone and online counselling service for men.

  • SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE: ☎ 1300 659 467 www
    A national 24-hour telephone and online counselling service for those feeling suicidal and those caring from someone who is suicidal, or those affected by suicide. 
There are also some excellent resources available on the Internet regarding mental illnesses. Go ahead and check some of them out:
    Expert information on depression and bipolar disorder for the public and professionals, including information on getting help for mood disorders and suggestions on ways of staying well.

    MindHealthConnect features mental health resources, information and online programs provided by a range of organisations, including a guided search tool which helps users to navigate their way to appropriate support.

    The Mental Health Council of Australia is an independent, non-government body that represents and promotes the interests of the mental health sector and advises on mental health in Australia.

    A national charity helping people affected by mental illness and fighting stigma through campaigning, education and research.

    A national organisation which aims to reduce the prevalence of anxiety and depression in Australia and the stigma surrounding the issues.

  • HEADSPACE: www
    Information, support and advice for young people 12-25, and their families, on general health; mental health and wellbeing; alcohol and other drugs; education, employment and other services. Centres around Australia provide with access to youth-friendly health professionals.