Mental health

A person’s mental health affects how they feel, think, behave and relate to others. Mental illness covers a spectrum of disorders. These vary in how severe they are and how long they last. It can affect people’s thoughts, mood, behaviour or the way they perceive the world around them. Subsequently, this causes distress and affects the person’s ability to function at work, in relationships or in everyday tasks. Mental illness can attract stigma and discrimination, which can be two of the biggest problems for a person with these disorders. 

Mental illness impacts on people’s lives at different levels of severity. Depending on definitions, an estimated 3% of Australian adults have severe disorders. Judged according to the type of illness, intensity of symptoms, duration of illness, and the degree of disability caused. Because many illnesses affect the individual’s functioning in social, family, educational and vocational roles, the early age of onset can have long term implications. Mental illnesses are the largest single cause of disability in Australia. Accounting for 24% of the burden of non-fatal disease. This has a major impact on youth and people in their prime adult working years.

Mental health problems are on the rise among adolescents and young adults. Almost half of all Australians aged 16 to 85 years — 7.3 million people — will experience mental illness at some point in their life. Women are more likely than men to experience depression and anxiety.

The most common conditions are:

  • anxiety
  • affective disorders, especially depression
  • substance use disorders, especially alcohol use

Types of mental illness

Mental illness is a general term for a group of illnesses. These may include symptoms that can affect a person’s thinking, perceptions, mood or behaviours. Eventually, they can make it difficult for someone to cope with work, relationships and other demands.

Here we list some of the more common mental health issues:

Mental health

1.   Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders is a group of mental health disorders. This includes generalized anxiety disorders, social phobias, specific phobias, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder. Untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to significant impairment on people’s daily lives.

2.       Behavioural and emotional disorders in children

Common behaviour disorders in children include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Treatment for these mental health disorders can include therapy, education and medication.

3.       Depression

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by lowering of mood, loss of interest and enjoyment, and reduced energy. It is not just feeling sad. There are different types and symptoms of depression. There are varying levels of severity and symptoms related to depression. Symptoms of depression can lead to increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

4.       Dissociation and dissociative disorders

Dissociation is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization disorder and dissociative identity disorder.

5.       Eating disorders

Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia nervosa and other binge eating disorders. This disorder affects females and males and can have serious psychological and physical consequences.

6.       Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, images or impulses that are intrusive and unwanted. Compulsions are time-consuming and distressing repetitive rituals. Treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and medications

7.       Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop as a response to people who have experienced any traumatic event. This can be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war-related events or torture, or natural disasters such as bushfires or floods.

8.       Bipolar affective disorder

Bipolar affective disorder is a type of mood disorder. Previously referred to as ‘manic depression’. A person with bipolar disorder experiences episodes of mania and depression. The person may or may not experience psychotic symptoms. The exact cause is unknown, but a genetic predisposition has been clearly established. Environmental stressors can also trigger episodes of this mental illness.

9.       Paranoia

Paranoia is the irrational and persistent feeling that people are ‘out to get you’. It may be a symptom of conditions. This includes paranoid personality disorder, delusional (paranoid) disorder and schizophrenia. Treatment for paranoia includes medications and psychological support.

10.   Psychosis

People affected by psychosis can experience delusions, hallucinations and confused thinking. Psychosis can occur in a number of mental illnesses. This includes drug-induced psychosis, schizophrenia and mood disorders. Medication and psychological support can relieve, or even eliminate, psychotic symptoms.

11.   Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a complex psychotic disorder characterised by disruptions to thinking and emotions, and a distorted perception of reality. Symptoms of schizophrenia vary widely. They may include hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, social withdrawal, lack of motivation and impaired thinking and memory. People with schizophrenia have a high risk of suicide. Schizophrenia is not a split personality.

The five main warning signs of mental illness are as follows:

  1. Excessive paranoia, worry, or anxiety
  2. Long-lasting sadness or irritability
  3. Extreme changes in moods
  4. Social withdrawal
  5. Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping pattern

 Prevalence of mental health conditions

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB) provides the most comprehensive estimates for mental disorders in Australian adults. Both over their lifetime and in the preceding 12 months. The survey estimated that 45 per cent of Australians had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. With 20 per cent experiencing a mental disorder in the previous year.

Mental illness is a major public health concern, accounting for 12% of the total disease burden in Australia. Third after cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Anxiety disorders affect 14.4% of the Australian population in any one year, and 5.4% will experience a depressive episode or dysthymia. The 12-month prevalence of bipolar disorder is 1.8%, and in 2010. With 0.45% of the Australian population were treated for a psychotic illness, most commonly schizophrenia. However, despite their prevalence, service access and effective illness management are major concerns for people with mental health problems. Australians with mental illness report ‘complex and chaotic’ service pathways, and insufficiencies in primary care settings. Specifically, concerning accurate and timely diagnosis, and continuity of care between GPs and specialist mental health service providers.

People who live with a mental illness are also more at risk of experiencing a range of adverse social, economic and health outcomes. Analysis by the Productivity Commission found that of six major health conditions (cancer, cardiovascular, major injury, mental illness, diabetes, arthritis), mental illness is associated with the lowest likelihood of being in the labour force.

Causes of mental illness

Researchers are still trying to understand what causes mental illness. There is no one cause — it can happen due to a mix of factors. How your brain works, how you grew up, your environment, your social group, your culture and life experience.

Some examples of these factors include:

  • Genetic factors: having a close family member with a mental illness can increase the risk. However, just because one family member has a mental illness doesn’t mean that others will.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse: illicit drug use can trigger a manic episode (bipolar disorder) or an episode of psychosis. Drugs such as cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines can cause paranoia.
  • Other biological factors: some medical conditions or hormonal changes.
  • Early life environment: negative childhood experiences such as abuse or neglect can increase the risk of some mental illnesses.
  • Trauma and stress: in adulthood, traumatic life events or ongoing stress such as social isolation, domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial or work problems can increase the risk of mental illness. Traumatic experiences such as living in a war zone can increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Personality factors: some traits such as perfectionism or low self-esteem can increase the risk of depression or anxiety.
  • Cultural trends: a big part of the issue in mental health with young people today is that so much of our lives are geared towards presenting ourselves to other people.

Looking after your mental health

Mental health

There is evidence that good mental wellbeing is important for physical health, learning, productivity, creativity and relationships. Some mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are common. If you have such an illness, it’s important to get the right treatment. Most people can manage their mental illness with medication, counselling or both.

Mental health-related services are provided in Australia in a variety of ways including:

  • hospital-based outpatient services and community mental health care services
  • consultations with your GP and other specialists
  • support from psychologists, social workers or occupational therapists
  • online services
  • hospitalization and other residential care

There are 5 steps we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing:

1.       Be active

Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and feel better. Exercise keeps the brain and your other vital organs healthy. It is also a significant benefit towards improving your mental health. The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When you improve your physical health, you’ll automatically experience greater mental and emotional well-being. Physical activity releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that lift your mood and provide added energy. Regular exercise or activity can have a major impact on mental and emotional health problem. Exercise helps relieve stress, improve memory, and help you to sleep better.

2.       Keep learning

What do you love doing? Which activities can you lose yourself in? Enjoying yourself can help beat stress. Doing an activity you enjoy probably means you’re good at it, and achieving something boosts your self-esteem. Everyone derives meaning and purpose in different ways that involve benefitting others, as well as yourself. You may think of it as a way to feel needed, feel good about yourself, a purpose that drives you on, or simply a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In biological terms, finding meaning and purpose is essential to brain health. It can strengthen your immune system, alleviate pain, relieve stress. Keeping you motivated to pursue the other steps to improve mental and emotional health. However you derive meaning and purpose in life, it’s important to do it every day.

3.       Talk about your feelings

Talking about your feelings can help you stay in good mental health and deal with times when you feel troubled. Stress takes a heavy toll on mental and emotional health. So it’s important to keep it under control. While not all stressors can be avoided, stress management strategies can help you brings things back into balance.

4.       Eat well

Your brain needs a mix of nutrients in order to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body. A diet that’s good for your physical health is also good for your mental health. Unless you’ve tried to change your diet in the past, you may not be aware how much of what you eat affects the way you think and feel. An unhealthy diet can take a toll on your brain and mood, disrupt your sleep, sap your energy, and weaken your immune system. Conversely, switching to a wholesome diet, low in sugar and rich in healthy fats, can give you more energy, improve your sleep and mood. Eventually helping you to look and feel your best.

5.       Stay connected

Make an effort to develop relationships with family and friends and colleagues. There’s nothing better than catching up with someone face to face, but that’s not always possible. You can also give them a call, drop them a note, or chat to them online instead. Keep the lines of communication open. It’s good for you! No matter how much time you devote to improving your mental and emotional health, you will still need the company of others to feel and function at your best. Humans are social creatures with emotional needs for relationships and positive connections to others. We’re not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation.

6.       Ask for help

None of us are superhuman. We all sometimes get tired or overwhelmed by how we feel or when things don’t go to plan. If things are getting too much for you and you feel you can’t cope, ask for help. Your family or friends may be able to offer practical help or a listening ear. If you’ve made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health and still aren’t functioning optimally at home, work, or in your relationships, it may be time to seek professional help.

7.       Take a break

A change of scene or a change of pace is good for your mental health. It could be a five-minute pause from cleaning your kitchen, a half-hour lunch break at work, or a weekend exploring somewhere new. A few minutes can be enough to de-stress you. Give yourself some ‘me time’.

Frequently Asked Questions

a) What is mental health?

A mental illness causes distress and affects the person’s ability to function at work, in relationships or in everyday tasks. Mental illness can attract stigma and discrimination. Which can be two of the biggest problems for a person with these disorders. 

b) What causes mental health problems?

It can happen due to a mix of factors. Including genetics, how your brain works, how you grew up, your environment, your social group, your culture and life experience.

c) What do I do if I’m worried about my mental health?

It’s important to get the right treatment. The most important thing is to talk to someone you trust. This might be a friend, colleague, family member, or GP. In addition to talking to someone, it may be useful to find out more information about what you are experiencing. These things may help to get some perspective on what you are experiencing, and be the start of getting help.

d) How many people have mental health issues and who are they?

The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, has found that one in five of Australian adults had a mental disorder in the previous 12 months. Additionally, it found that almost half the total Australian population would experience a mental disorder at some time in their lives.

e) What are the 3 most common mental illnesses in Australia?

The most common conditions are:

  • anxiety
  • affective disorders, especially depression
  • substance use disorders, especially alcohol use


Anyone can suffer from mental or emotional health problems. This year alone, about one in five of us will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Having solid mental health doesn’t mean that you never go through bad times or experience emotional problems. We all go through disappointments, loss, and change. And while these are normal parts of life, they can still cause sadness, anxiety, and stress. But just as physically healthy people are better able to bounce back from illness or injury, people with strong mental health are better able to bounce back from the adversity of mental illness