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Mental illness

13-minute read

If you or someone close to you is experiencing an emergency, or is at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000). To talk to someone now, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Key facts

  • Almost half the population has experienced a mental health disorder at some time in their life.
  • There are many different types of mental illness, and each type has a different set of symptoms.
  • If you’re concerned that you might be experiencing a mental illness, see your doctor — this is the first step to getting treated and returning to good mental health.

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a health issue. It can affect your thoughts, mood, or behaviour. It can impact the way you perceive the world around you.

A mental illness can cause distress. It may affect how you cope at work, how you function in relationships and your ability to manage everyday tasks.

Mental illnesses can last for a short time or for your whole life. Some mild mental illness lasts only a few weeks. Sometimes severe illnesses can be life-long and cause serious disability.

Each year, about 1 in every 5 Australians will experience a mental illness. Almost half the population has experienced a mental health disorder at some time in their life.

What are the types of mental illness?

There are many different types of mental illness. Some of the main groups of mental health disorders are:

What are the symptoms of mental illness?

Each type of mental illness has a different set of symptoms. For example, extreme dieting may be a sign that someone has an eating disorder. Hearing voices could be a sign of psychosis. An ongoing feeling of hopelessness after childbirth could be a sign of postnatal depression. People with depression can have a lasting sadness or low mood. People with anxiety often have excessive worry or fears. Sometimes feelings of anxiety happen without any apparent reason.

Drastic changes in a person’s thoughts, moods or behaviour can be a sign they have a mental illness. Changes can be sudden or come on gradually over a long period. A person who usually copes well with life may start to have trouble doing their normal activities. These changes can cause them, or their loved ones, distress. These signs could indicate a mental illness.

Here are some signs of mental illness to look out for:

  • unusual or illogical thoughts
  • unreasonable anger or irritability
  • poor concentration and memory, not being able to follow a conversation
  • hearing voices that no one else can hear
  • increased or decreased sleep
  • increased or low appetite, or preoccupation with control over food, calories or excessive exercise
  • lack of motivation
  • withdrawing from people
  • drug use
  • feelings that life is not worth living or suicidal thoughts
  • becoming obsessed with a topic, like death or religion
  • not looking after personal hygiene or other responsibilities
  • not doing as well as usual at school or work

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

The symptoms of mental illness can come and go throughout a person’s life.

What causes mental illness?

Researchers are still trying to understand what causes mental illness. There is not simply one cause, and often it is a complex mix of factors. These can include genetics and aspects of social learning, such as how you grew up.

It can also be impacted by how your brain works and the interplay with your environment. Your social group, your culture and life experience can also play a part in the development of a mental illness.

Some examples of these factors include:

  • Genetic factors — having a close family member with a mental illness can increase the chance that you might get a mental illness. 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 can cause mental health problems.
  • Early life environment — negative childhood experiences can increase the risk of some mental illnesses. Examples of negative childhood experiences are abuse or neglect.
  • Trauma and stress — in adulthood, traumatic life events or ongoing stress can increase the risk of mental illness. Issues such as social isolation, domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial or work problems can impact on mental health. 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.

When should I see my doctor?

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, it can be hard to know whether to see a doctor as feelings like sadness or worry can change over time. However, if those feelings or symptoms are having an impact on your daily life it’s important to get help.

Beyond Blue have created a mental health continuum that includes stages like healthy, unsettled and struggling. If you’re not sure how to describe what you’re feeling or how to decide what help you might need, you may find it useful.

Seeing your doctor is the first step to getting treated and returning to good mental health.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is mental illness diagnosed?

Mental illness can be diagnosed by talking to your doctor in detail about your symptoms.

It may be helpful to bring along a family member or carer when you see your doctor.

Your doctor will ask questions about your thoughts and mood. They will also ask about your behaviours and if anything is worrying you. Some experiences can increase the chance of developing a mental illness.

There are generally no blood tests or brain scans that can confirm a mental illness. But your doctor may suggest getting these tests done, as the results can help rule out other causes for your symptoms.

The symptoms of different mental illnesses are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This manual is used by doctors to help diagnose mental illnesses.

Your doctor may refer you to:

  • a specialist doctor in mental illness (a psychiatrist)
  • a psychologist
  • another specialised service

How is mental illness treated?

Mental illness is treatable. Most people with mental illness recover and live productive and happy lives.

Treatment is different for each type of mental illness. It can vary according to the individual and how serious the symptoms are. It can also depend on your past history of illness. The main types of treatment include the following.

Psychological therapy

There are many different types of psychotherapy. Some examples are:

Other therapies are group, couple and family therapy.


Medicines can be used in the treatment of mental illness.

Lifestyle measures

Daily actions to improve your mental health

Research from MindSpot has shown that regularly performing five simple daily actions can improve your mental health.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies for mental illness can include:

Support programs

Community programs can help with practical aspects of life such as employment, education and training, and accommodation. They can be helpful for people with mental illness that is long-term.

Sometimes mental illness is severe, with a risk of suicide. In these cases, treatment may involve hospital assessment and maybe admission.

Can mental illness be prevented?

Good mental health can be boosted by positive things in life such as:

  • having support from family, friends and the community
  • having a strong sense of identity and culture
  • having a healthy body, by eating a healthy diet and exercising
  • reducing stress if possible
  • being optimistic
  • developing adaptive ways of coping with life’s problems
  • getting support

Complications of mental illness

Mental illness can attract stigma and discrimination. These are 2 of the biggest problems for people with mental health issues.

Up to 1 in 12 people with mental illness have felt suicidal.

If you, or someone else, are at immediate risk of suicide, call triple zero (000) now.

Resources and support

A good first step is to talk to people you trust. You could talk to your partner, a friend or a colleague.

You can also seek professional support. Your doctor, a psychologist or a counsellor are also able to help you. They are health professionals who are trained to help people going through mental health difficulties.

If you need support in a language other than English, visit the Embrace Multicultural Mental Health website.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Where to get help

Telephone or online mental health resources can often be effective, especially if you aren’t able to access a health service, or find talking to someone face-to-face difficult. Here are some telephone and online resources to try:

  • Head to Health — for advice and to get connected to local mental health services, you can call 1800 595 212. Check the operating times.
  • SANE Australia — for people living with a mental illness, call 1800 18 7263.
  • Beyond Blue — for anyone feeling depressed or anxious, call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute — online help for people affected by mood disorders.
  • Lifeline — for anyone having a personal crisis, call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service — for anyone thinking about suicide, call 1300 659 467.
  • Qlife — for those experiencing mental health issues related to their sexuality or gender identity (LGBTIQA+), call 1800 184 527 or chat online.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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