A Mental Health condition is ‘a health condition characterized by alteration in thinking, mood, or behaviour associated with distress or interference with personal functions’ (1). It is also known as mental illness, mental disorder, psycho-social disability. Mental health conditions may be transitory or longer standing with symptoms ranging from mild and episodic to severe and ongoing.
Anyone can develop a mental illness and no one is immune to mental health problems. Mental illness is common. Nearly half (45%) the population will experience a mental illness at some stage in their lives. In a 12-month period almost one in five Australians (20%) will experience a mental illness. These include: anxiety disorders (14% of the population), depression (6%), bipolar disorder (two in every hundred). The remainder include personality disorders, psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia (one in every hundred), substance abuse disorders and other conditions. Many people have more than one diagnosis. Mental illnesses are not purely ‘psychological’ and can have many physical features. At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the time they are 25 years old.
A Mental Health condition is an ‘invisible’ disability. The impact of these conditions might not be immediately noticeable but can include anxiety, panic attacks, limited attention span, fluctuating motivation, disorganisation and unpleasant physical manifestations (e.g. sweaty palms, palpitations).
Mental illness is treatable. Contrary to what is commonly believed, most people with a mental illness recover well and are able to lead fulfilling lives in the community when they receive appropriate ongoing community based treatment and support. With ongoing treatment and support the majority of people who develop anxiety disorders and depression improve over time and 80% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder also improve. However, only half of those affected by mental illness actually receive treatment. With modern medications and treatment, there is generally no reason for most people with a mental illness to be in hospital. A hospital stay is usually for a few weeks, only when a person is unwell, as with many other types of illness. A person taking prescription medication may experience drowsiness, persistent thirst, vision difficulties, and problems with coordination.
However some adults (3%) are so severely affected by mental illness they become ‘psychiatrically disabled’. Schizophrenia can be a particularly disabling condition that affects approximately 1% of Australians. Schizophrenia is a persistent form of mental illness which affects the normal functioning of the brain, interfering with a person ’s ability to think, feel and act. There is no cure, but it is a treatable illness. The vast majority of people with a ‘psychiatric disability’ are able to live independently (and often to work) in the community, if given the opportunity and support to do so. Of those diagnosed with Schizophrenia about 20% have one or two episodes, then never experience symptoms again and 60% improve over time. However, for about 20% of people, symptoms are more persistent, treatments are less effective, and greater support service are needed. People with schizophrenia have only one personality and find it hurtful to have their diagnosis inaccurately misrepresented as a split personality.
Most people with a mental illness do not have family members with the illness. For some mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, a predisposition to the illness may be inherited, but it is only one of several factors. The causes are not fully understood. It is likely that such mental disorders involve a biochemical imbalance and can be triggered by such things as stressful life events, drug abuse, hormonal changes or physical illness.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, people receiving treatment for a mental illness are no more violent or dangerous than the general population. In fact, people living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, especially self-harm. Mental illness itself is not life-threatening. However, people seriously affected by mental illness are more at risk of suicide than the general population (15% compared to 1%). Effective, ongoing treatment is essential to minimise the risk of suicide.
Understanding and respect is one important form of support that all of us can give a person with a mental illness.