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Recognising the signs

 Quick Summary

If you, or a loved one are experiencing a mental illness or psycho-social disorder for the first time, this can be a very frightening, confusing and lonely time. Mental illness effects can range from mild to severe, and can happen occasionally or frequently. Each year about 3.6 million Australians will experience a period of mental ill health. Research shows that early diagnosis and treatment is much more likely to assist in halting, or reducing the symptoms of most episodes of mental illness. Remember, although you may find it difficult, you have already taken the first step to recovery by recognising that something is wrong. The next step is to get some help, so you can find out why these changes are happening.

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About half of all Australians aged between 16 and 85 will have some experience of mental ill health in their lifetime. The Australian government’s healthdirect website lists nine signs that indicate someone is experiencing a mental health issue:

– Feeling anxious or worried;

– Feeling depressed or unhappy;

– Emotional outbursts, dramatic changes in mood;

– Sleep problems;

– Weight or appetite changes;

– Becoming quiet or withdrawn;

– Substance abuse, using alcohol or drugs to cope;

– Feeling guilty or worthless;

– Changes in behaviour or feelings, that something doesn’t seem ‘quite right.’

A visit to your GP is the best step to discovering why these changes might be happening and making a plan. There are many great resources that have been developed as well as excellent services you can gain support from.

The mental health and medical profession have long based their responses on identifying and grouping symptoms and naming them. This is called a diagnosis. For some people having a diagnosis is a great help. For others this can be a threat and create fear and resistance to getting help.

Remember that you are not the diagnosis, you simply have some symptoms that can usually be lessened. Recognising the signs and getting assistance early is important much more likely to halt or reduce the symptoms of most mental illnesses. See Get Started for general information, resources and links to explore what the diagnosis means. Some mental health organisations also have online forums where you can chat with others in similar situations.

Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are the most common types of mental illness. Australian government research shows they make up 45% of mental health diagnoses for people who are between 16 and 85 years. That’s about 7.3 million people.


Depression is a mental health condition with symptoms that include feeling sad and worthless, low enjoyment of things you once liked, emotional outbursts like crying and getting angry, and low motivation to engage with other people or look after yourself. In more severe cases, people may have suicidal ideas or start to self-harm. Any of these persistent symptoms may be reduced with the right information and support.


Anxiety is the body’s physical reaction to a perceived threat. It’s most often a normal reaction to change or uncertainty. However about 25% of people will experience more severe symptoms that start to significantly affect their lives. These include changes in how they think and feel, inability to concentrate, feeling scared or nervous, excessive worry about everyday issues or reluctance to go out or do normal activities. Some people experience more severe panic symptoms when the breathing and heart rate increases, it is difficult to rest or sleep and they feel dizzy. Others may have unwanted impulses or obsessions causing repetitive behaviours as a way to cope.

There are many pathways and services that can help answer your questions about your mental health or that of a family member. See Get Started for links to some of these resources. No-one today in Australia need experience mental illness unsupported.


If you or someone you know is at immediate risk of harm, call 000 and get help now.

If the risk isn’t immediate but you are still concerned, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 to talk to a trained mental health professional, both services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For information on medical and crisis support available, see our Finding Your Way chapter – Medical and Crisis Support.

Not sure if the symptoms you’re seeing are mental illness? Take a look at the Australian government’s healthdirect website’s page Nine Signs of Mental Health Issues.

The Black Dog Institute have some really useful fact sheets about all kinds of mental illness.

Similarly, Beyond Blue has great information in easy to read Fact sheets and links to help you make the next step if you need. Take a look at the Beyond Blue website.

You have already made the important first step to recovery by recognising that something is wrong. The next step is to get some help.

For most people, their GP is the first port of call. If you don’t have a regular GP already, you can ask family and friends for their recommendations, or talk to your local pharmacist.

It’s a good idea to book a longer appointment so you have enough time to really talk things through. Make some notes beforehand about how you have been feeling and take them along. Take someone along to support you and help you explain things if you are worried about that.

It is important to be honest with your doctor, and be reassured that you won’t be judged and that your information will be kept private.

For more information on talking to your GP about mental health, along with a handy Question Builder tool to give you tips on what to ask your GP or specialist, see healthdirect’s Talking to your doctor (GP) about mental health page.


Here you can find a simple list of the best actions to take if you are interested in this topic:

1 .

Write down personal details about the person/self including date of birth, address and contact details. Find out as much as possible about the person’s past treatment history, medication, and the symptoms that can be described by the person or a support worker.

2 .

Think about what help you or the person need. Is this an emergency (call 000) or a doctor’s appointment?

3 .

Don’t delay. Make the phone call, send the email, talk to someone close to you that you trust and that can help.

4 .

Do you just need information? Use the internet, the library or get the doctor to print you out Fact Sheets and learn more about what you can do.