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Mental Health Explained

Defining Mental Illness

We can all be "sad" or "blue" at times in our lives. We have all seen movies about the madman and his crime spree, with the underlying cause of mental illness. We sometimes even make jokes about people being crazy or nuts, even though we know that we shouldn't. We have all had some exposure to mental illness, but do we really understand it or know what it is? Many of our preconceptions are incorrect. A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person's thinking, feelings, or behaviour (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning.

As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others. Individuals who have a mental illness don't necessarily look like they are sick, especially if their illness is mild. Other individuals may show more explicit symptoms such as confusion, agitation, or withdrawal. There are many different mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each illness alters a person's thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviours in distinct ways. Not all brain diseases are categorized as mental illnesses. Disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis are brain disorders, but they are considered neurological diseases rather than mental illnesses. Interestingly, the lines between mental illnesses and these other brain or neurological disorders is blurred somewhat.

As scientists continue to investigate the brains of people who have mental illnesses, they are learning that mental illness is associated with changes in the brain's structure, chemistry, and function and that mental illness does indeed have a biological basis. This ongoing research is, in some ways, causing scientists to minimize the distinctions between mental illnesses and these other brain disorders.


Mental illness may bring feelings of frustration and other negative feelings. Recovering from mental health can be as stressful as the original factors that caused the anguish and to make matters worse the initial recovery can often be plagued by setbacks while you and your medical team discover which treatment methods work best for you. So try not to get despondent, this is not an unusual occurrence, it is best to be patient. Discovering what is best for your own unique recovery is therefore a challenge. While many of us cope well with normal life experiences, few of us know much about what to do when faced with varying degrees of mental dysfunction. After all, it's not like the flu or breaking an arm!

Impact on Others

When mental illness first strikes, family members may deny the person has a continuing illness. During the acute episode family members will be alarmed by what is happening to their loved one. When the episode is over and the family member returns home, everyone will feel a tremendous sense of relief. All involved want to put this painful time in the past and focus on the future. Many times, particularly when the illness is a new phenomenon in the family, everyone may believe that since the person is now doing very well that symptomatic behaviour will never return. They may also look for other answers, hoping that the symptoms were caused by some other physical problem or external stressors that can be removed. For example, some families move thinking that a "fresh start" in a new environment will alleviate the problem.

Family members often mistakenly think that you are acting as you do on purpose and could control these behaviours if you only tried harder. As a result they become critical, evaluative and judgemental.

Sometimes, even after some family members do understand the reality of the illness, others do not. Those who do accept the truth find that they must protect the ill person from those who do not and who blame and denigrate the ill person for unacceptable behaviour and lack of achievement. Obviously, this leads to tension within the family, and isolation and loss of meaningful relationships with those who are not supportive of the ill person.

Families may also have little knowledge about mental illness. They may believe that it is a condition that is totally disabling. This is not so. However, it is difficult to know where to turn to get information. Without information to help families learn to cope with mental illness, families can become very pessimistic about the future. The illness seems to control their destiny rather than the family, including the ill member, gaining control by learning how to manage the illness and to plan for the future. It is imperative that the family find sources of information that help them to understand how the illness affects the person. They need to know that with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both, the majority of people do return to a normal life style. It is also imperative that the family finds sources of support for themselves. In both cases, clergy can play a critical role in identifying resources in the community that can help the family build the knowledge base that will give them the tools to assist their loved one and themselves.

Understanding Frustration, Helplessness and Anxiety

It is difficult for anyone to deal with strange thinking and bizarre and unpredictable behaviour. Imagine what it must be for families of people with mental illness. It is bewildering, frightening and exhausting. Even when the person is stabilized on medication, the apathy and lack of motivation can be frustrating.

Blame and Guilt

It is important to recognize that a person with a mental illness is a loving family member and/or friend and not a magician. None of us can change anyone else, we can only be supportive of ourselves and our loved one as each of us attempts to find ways to manage mental illness. Focus on the good things that happened during each day. Realize that we all have physical and emotional limits. Do not blame yourself or others if that limit is reached.


Even when all members of the family have the knowledge to deal with mental illness, the family is often reluctant to discuss their family member with others because they do not know how people will react. After all, myths and misconception surround mental illness. For many, even their closest friends may not understand. Family members may become reluctant to invite anyone to the home because the ill person can be unpredictable or is unable to handle the disruption and heightened stimulation of a number of people in the house. Furthermore, family members may be anxious about leaving the ill person at home alone. They are concerned about what can happen. The result is they go out separately or not at all.

Gaining Knowledge

Increasing knowledge in ways such as reading medical books, internet research and making new friends can only help in your recovery from your illness and problems. Knowledge gained will also allow you to communicate better with your doctors. For example, you will be able to ask more knowledgeable questions when you are with your doctors.

Mental Illness in Australia

Some facts and statistics surrounding Mental Health/Mental Illness in Australia.

  • One out of every five Australians [about 20%] will experience some form of mental illness each year.Three out of every ten [about 30%] will be seriously affected.
  • Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental disorders experienced by Australians. Depression alone is predicted to be one of the world's largest health problems by 2020.
  • Nearly one in 10 Australians will experience some type of anxiety disorder each year - around one in 12 women and one in eight men. One in four people will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage of their lives.
  • Around one million Australian adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year. On average, one in five people will experience depression in their lives - one in four females and one in six males.
  • Mental illness affects young people. Around 14% of 12-17 year olds and 27% of 18-25 year olds experience a mental illness in any given year. At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the age of 25 years.
  • The majority of mental illnesses begin between the ages of 15-­25 years. This poses a significant threat to our nation's future workforce capacity and economic prosperity.
  • The 2001 National Health Survey estimated that 1.8 million Australians (9.6% of the population) had a long-­term mental or behavioural problem of more than 6 months duration. Of these, 130,600 (0.7%) were related to drug and alcohol problems.
  • Approximately two-­thirds of people with a mental illness do not receive any treatment in any 12 month period.
  • Mental disorders and suicide account for 14.2% of Australia's total health burden, which equates to 374,541 years of healthy life lost (DALYs)
  • Estimates suggest that up to 75% of people presenting with alcohol and drug problems also have additional mental health problems.
  • Reports indicate that up to 85% of homeless people have a mental illness.