About one in five Australians will experience difficulties with their mental health at some stage of their lives. One in 200 people will experience psychosis.

Mental illness is a general term that refers to a group of conditions (or disorders), and includes schizophrenia, eating disorders, anxiety and depression, and more. These conditions can significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people, and they are diagnosed according to standardised criteria. Not everyone living with these symptoms will be diagnosed.

Many people living with mental health challenges may also experience times of homelessness, poverty, isolation, poor physical health, unemployment, and stigmatisation.  These all combine to significantly affect a person’s capacity to care for themselves and to continue in employment or education.

The good news is that people can and do go on to live full and meaningful lives.

The information about mental health disorders provided on this website is very general and not fully comprehensive. If you, or someone you know, is experiencing symptoms you think may be a sign of mental illness, you should contact your general practitioner (GP). A referral to a qualified mental health clinician can begin the work towards getting specialised care.

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Anxiety

Anxiety

It's natural to feel anxious when you’re faced with a situation such as taking an exam or making a speech at a function. That’s part of everyday life. But when anxiety stops you living your everyday life, you may have an anxiety disorder.

These disorders are quite common – one-in-ten Australians will develop one at some point. They can make people feel very tense for a long time, and often involve the fear (and actual presence) of panic attacks. It is important to remember that with the right support, life can get a lot better.

There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders, including:

  • General (or generalised) anxiety disorder (sometimes called GAD) – worrying excessively but not about any one thing in particular.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (sometimes called OCD) – doing repetitive actions that you don’t actually want to do such as excessive hand washing or checking door locks; It can also include having repeated unwelcome thoughts such as fear of being ill or fear of harming yourself or others.
  • Panic disorder – having regular panic attacks, and sometimes having a level of fear of having them that actually triggers them.
  • Social anxiety disorder – fear of meeting people to the point where you avoid social situations.
  • Phobia – irrational fear of a thing or situation. A common phobia is agoraphobia, which is the fear of having a panic attack in an environment where you don’t feel safe.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (sometimes called PTSD) – periods of extreme anxiety after a seriously stressful event.

The causes of anxiety disorders are not known but it is thought that severe stress or trauma can be triggers. Some personality types are at greater risk. Treatment may (but not always) include medication as well as psychological therapies, avoidance of stress, exercise and relaxation techniques.

The symptoms of anxiety vary and affect people in different ways. Typically, though, they include physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, heart racing, light-headedness and nausea, with psychological symptoms such as excessive worrying, especially about things that aren’t likely to happen.

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Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder – or manic depression, as it used to be known – is a condition that can severely change a person’s mood. With bipolar disorder, a person can swing from feeling very high, which is called being manic or hypomanic, to being extremely low. At times, they may lose contact with reality.

The common symptoms of being manic include needing less sleep, being irritable, having a sharp increase in energy, talking very quickly, having grand plans and beliefs and a lack of inhibitions. In a period of depression, a person can feel so low that it makes functioning at home, work or school difficult or impossible. They may also be at risk of suicide.

We don’t know what causes bipolar disorder but it does have a tendency to run in families and may be linked to childhood trauma and stressful life events.

Someone with bipolar disorder will often have long periods of being well; and with effective management such as medication and counselling a person can live a full and meaningful life.

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Depression

Depression

Depression is much more than feeling sad, which all of us feel at times. A person who’s depressed may feel so low for so long that they can’t function normally.

Depression can be caused by a variety of factors such as genetic inheritance or stressful life events; sometimes it happens for no apparent reason. Symptoms include:

  • loss of interest in life
  • feeling worthless or guilty
  • significant weight changes
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • a loss of interest in sex
  • feeling teary, afraid or perhaps irritable.

These are also the symptoms of perinatal depression (‘perinatal’ refers to the period of pregnancy and the year after birth), which can affect both mums and dads and can occur any time in that period. If it happens before birth, it’s often called ante-natal depression and if it happens after it’s called post-natal depression.

People with depression usually respond very well to treatment, which may include medication, counselling and exercise.

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Dual diagnosis

Dual diagnosis

Dual diagnosis is when a person is affected by both mental ill-health and another illness or condition such as problems with alcohol or other drug use. Dual diagnosis can also refer to mental illness combined with an intellectual or physical disability.

In both cases, diagnosis and treatment can be challenging. This is because the symptoms of one problem can look like – or mask – the symptoms of the other. Once an accurate diagnosis is reached, there are many effective treatments. These work best when there is good coordination between the mental health service provider and other treatment specialists dealing with the co-occuring issues.

 

Eating disorders

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious illnesses. They cause an attitude towards food that changes people’s eating habits in an unhealthy way.

But they’re not just about food: often they’re a way of dealing with psychological problems such as low self-esteem or intense distress. They’re more common among adolescent girls and young women but can affect boys and men, too.

People with eating disorders may go to great lengths to hide their behaviour. The signs that someone has an eating disorder include being obsessed with food and their weight and having a false idea about how their body looks. Common symptoms include a change in eating habits, like obsessive dieting, weighing food, refusing to eat meals, going to the bathroom during or after meals and physical changes like thinning hair and excessively greasy or dry skin and hair.

Types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa – not eating enough, to the point of starvation at worst, yet still feeling overweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa – feeling unable to control the urge to eat and eating too much, then feeling guilty and purging what you’ve eaten in different ways, including vomiting, the use of laxatives or excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating – eating excessively, even if you’re not hungry, and feeling guilty afterwards. Bingeing often masks other feelings, such as anxiety, loneliness or depression.

Treatment varies depending on the type of eating disorder, and the age and gender of the person affected. The key is to identify and treat the underlying cause. Individual psychotherapy, family therapy, medication and nutritional support can be of great help.

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Hearing voices

Hearing voices

Hearing voices is probably a reasonably common human experience, given that some estimate up to 28% of the general population hears voices that other people do not.

Hearing voices may not be a sign of a mental health problem. And some people report their experience of hearing voices is something they can live with well enough. However, for others, the experience of hearing voices is distressing and overwhelming, especially when the voices are saying unpleasant things or giving commands. Hearing voices that seem to come from outside your own consciousness is the most common type of hallucination in people with psychotic disorders.

An essential first step in managing the voices is said to be acceptance of the voices as belonging to you. This is one of the most important and difficult steps to take. But voices express what the voice hearers are feeling or thinking – for instance, aggression or fear about an event or relationship. Treatment focuses on reducing the distress that can be associated with voices, and learning to live with voices so one can get on with leading a meaningful and contributing life.

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Mental ill-health and intellectual disability

Mental ill-health and intellectual disability

People with intellectual disabilities may have problems expressing their thoughts, learning new skills, doing day-to-day tasks, making decisions and remembering things. As a consequence, when they experience a mental health issue it may not be recognised. Medical practitioners or carers may assume that difficult behaviours are due to somebody’s intellectual disability, instead of considering the possibility of mental health issues.

There are many effective treatments addressing intellectual disability. These work best when there is good coordination between the mental health service provider and disability services.

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Personality disorders

Personality disorders

Everyone has a unique personality, and most of us have traits – like worrying or getting jealous – that we’d like to change. However, when someone’s personality causes major problems in their life, such as serious upheaval and distress, problems with relationships and perhaps self-harm, they may have a personality disorder. This behaviour may have been happening since teenage years or early adulthood and disrupting most parts of their life.

While much is still not known about personality disorders, the most common is borderline personality disorder (BPD). Symptoms include a fear of being abandoned, insecurity, volatile emotions, reckless behaviour, paranoia, and self-harm. Major contributing factors in the development of BPD could include traumatic events in childhood, such as abuse, neglect and separation from caregivers or loved ones.

Early intervention, with psychological therapy, medication where necessary, education and support, is known to have good outcomes for many people living with BPD.

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Psychosis

Psychosis

When a person has trouble knowing what is real and what is not, they may be suffering from psychosis. Psychosis can result in a person being unable to function as they usually do. They may hear sounds or voices or see things that others do not. People experiencing psychosis may also become deluded or paranoid.

Psychosis is often associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder (in which people experience symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations as well as those of bipolar disorder such as mania), but it can occur on its own. It can also be triggered by stress, trauma and alcohol or other drug misuse. Other causes may include genetic inheritance and chronic lack of sleep.

Most people recover from an episode of psychosis and some people may experience psychosis only once. Those who receive treatment early (which may involve medication, and perhaps hospitalisation) are more likely to recover quickly.

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Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia have disturbed thoughts, behaviour and emotions, with psychotic symptoms which vary from person to person. They may see things or hear voices that others don't (hallucinations), which can be very distressing, and they may have delusions and talk in a way that others can't understand. A person may lose their ability to take care of themselves and perform daily tasks; or they may not show their usual range of emotions and become so disorganised in their thinking that working or studying is impossible.

Symptoms are most likely to emerge between the ages of 15 and 25 and there is no single cause of the illness. Treatments are improving and involve medication and counselling, and perhaps hospitalisation. While schizophrenia can be debilitating, improvement and recovery are very possible.

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Supported decision making and advance statements

Supported decision making is mainly for people who become unwell and might need compulsory treatment.

Getting the most out of appointments with care providers

Some very simple things you can do that will help you get the best out of appointments.

Recovery

Here are some great resources to help you in your journey to recovery.