What is mental illness and why is there such a need for good mental health?
Mental illnesses are also called mental disorders. They are extremely common in the Australian population and stem from poor mental health. This could be due to many factors such as lifestyle, diet, work and social stresses.
1 in every 5 Australians — about 4 million people — suffers from a mental illness in a given year, and almost half the population has suffered a mental disorder at some time in their life. The most common mental disorders are depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.
There are many different types of mental illness. They can range from mild disorders lasting only a few weeks through to severe illnesses that can be life-long and cause serious disability.
Mental illnesses can affect people’s thoughts, mood, behaviour or the way they perceive the world around them. 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. Up to 1 in 10 people with mental illness die by suicide.
Although mental illness is treatable, about two thirds of people with mental illnesses do not seek any treatment. Psychological therapy, medicine and lifestyle changes can be effective for mental illness. If you suspect that someone may have signs of a mental illness, the first step for them is to visit a doctor or health professional.
What is mental illness stigma?
Stigma occurs whenever there are negative opinions, judgments or stereotypes about anyone with any form of mental illness.
Stigma shows when someone with a mental illness is called ‘dangerous’, ‘crazy’ or ‘incompetent’ rather than unwell.
Stigma can lead people with mental illness to be discriminated against and miss out on work or housing, bullied or to become a victim of violence.
Why does stigma exist?
Stigma exists mainly because some people don’t understand mental illness, and also because some people have negative attitudes or beliefs towards it. Even some mental health professionals have negative beliefs about the people they care for.
Media can also play a part in reinforcing a stigma against mental illness by:
portraying mentally ill people with inaccurate stereotypes
sensationalising situations through unwarranted references to mental illness
using demeaning or hostile language.
For example, if a part of the media associates mental illness with violence, that promotes the myth that all people with a mental illness are dangerous. In fact, research shows people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
How does stigma affect people with mental illness?
A person who is stigmatised may be treated differently and excluded from many things the rest of society takes for granted.
People with mental illness may also take on board the prejudiced views held by others, which can affect their self-esteem. This can lead them to not seek treatment, to withdraw from society, to alcohol and drug abuse or even to suicide.
Warning signs of suicide:
A person who is thinking about suicide will usually give some clues or signs to people around them. The best way to prevent suicide is to recognise these warning signs, take them seriously and act on them.
This article covers the warning signs of suicide you should look out for and how to respond to them. If you notice any of these warning signs in a friend, relative or loved one, encourage them to talk about how they are feeling and to share these concerns with a member of their healthcare team.
If you think there is a high risk of a person dying by suicide before they can get the appropriate professional help, call the person’s doctor, a mental health crisis service or dial triple zero (000) and say that the person’s life is at risk. Do not leave them alone, unless you are concerned for your own safety.
If the person agrees, you could go together to the local hospital emergency department.
Things to look out for:
Almost everyone who has committed suicide will have given some signs or warnings, even though some of these signs might be subtle. A person might show they are considering suicide in how they feel, talk and behave.
How they feel and talk — signs include:
- feeling sad, angry, ashamed, rejected, desperate, lonely, irritable, overly happy or exhausted
- feeling trapped and helpless: “I can’t see any way out of this”
- feeling worthless or hopeless: “I’m on my own — no one cares. No one would even notice I was gone”
- feeling guilty: “It’s my fault, I’m to blame”
How they behave — signs include:
- abusing drugs or alcohol, or using more than they usually do
- withdrawing from friends, family and society
- appearing anxious and agitated
having trouble sleeping or sleeping all the time
- having sudden mood swings — a sudden lift in mood after a period of depression could indicate they have made the decision to attempt suicide
- having episodes of sudden rage and anger
- acting recklessly and engaging in risky activities
- losing interest in their appearance, such as dressing badly, no longer wearing make-up or not washing regularly
- putting their affairs in order
- making funeral arrangements
High-risk warning signs
A person may be at high risk of attempting suicide if they:
- threaten to hurt or kill themselves
- possess or have ways to kill themselves, such as stockpiling tablets or buying equipment that could be used to harm themselves
- talk, draw or write about death, dying or suicide
Responding to warning signs
It can be challenging to talk to someone about their suicidal thoughts, but if you have noticed warning signs and are worried, the best way to find out is to ask. You might be the only person who does ask.
beyondblue has tips for how to start a conversation about suicide and questions you could ask.
Where to get help
The person’s doctor or acute care team can provide a range of options for treating and managing mental health issues. The emergency department at their local hospital will also be able to help them. Alternatively, if they are in Australia, you or they can ring the following numbers for 24-hour help, support and advice:
Lifeline — 13 11 14
Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800
Suicide Call Back Service — 1300 659 467
MensLine Australia — 1300 78 99 78