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What is mental illness?

Five facts about mental health:
  • About 47% of New Zealanders will experience a mental illness and/or an addiction at some time in their lives, with one-in-five people affected within one year.
  • According to the World Health Organization, mental illness accounts for 15% of the total burden of disease in the developed world, with depression set to become the second leading cause of disability in the world by 2020.
  • 16% of adult New Zealanders have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and/or bipolar disorder at some point in their lives.
  • Approximately 6% of New Zealanders (aged 15 and over) are predicted to experience a major depressive disorder over a 12-month period.
  • People living in deprived areas are more likely to have been diagnosed with common mental disorders.

Mental illness is any disease or condition that influences the way a person thinks, feels, behaves and/ or relates to others. It results from complex interactions between the mind, body and environment. Factors which can contribute to mental illness are:

  • long-term and acute stress
  • biological factors such as genetics, chemistry and hormones
  • use of alcohol, drugs and other substances
  • cognitive patterns such as constant negative thoughts and low self esteem
  • social factors such as isolation, financial problems, family breakdown or violence.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

We all experience ups and downs in our mental health: at times we may feel really down and low, other times we may feel happy and balanced. A mental illness is when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function. Some people experience a mental health problem which also affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, but to a lesser extent than a mental illness.

What to look out for

Even if you are close to someone, it can sometimes be hard to tell how much emotional pain they are in and whether they need help; and it can be equally as hard recognising in it yourself. Often, it’s something small that can make you think something isn’t quite right – and more often than not, that hunch will be right. You might see it in yourself or in someone else, or someone could see it in you.

If you are experiencing a mental illness, you can experience problems in the way you think, feel or behave. This can significantly affect your relationships, work and quality of life. 

Symptoms differ from person to person, but a common sign is if your behaviour changes, suddenly or gradually. These changes can sometimes be a reaction to life events; this is especially true for adolescents. Being in a constant state of mental distress can be very damaging, mentally and physically. 

You might want to get extra support if you or someone else:
  • Don't want to see their friends or no longer enjoy spending time with their friends and family
  • Stop doing things they used to love or don't seem to be enjoying themselves
  • Can't remember things, concentrate, or pay attention
  • Feel bad about themselves – guilty, worthless or ashamed
  • Have a big change in eating patterns or appetite
  • Have extreme mood swings
  • Feel hopeless or really sad, or cry a lot
  • Feel anxious, stressed, nervous or scared a lot and can't seem to relax
  • Are not happy unless they're using drugs or alcohol
  • Don't take care of their appearance or personal hygiene
  • Have physical signs of injury or that they are hurting themselves
  • Have panic attacks – rapid heartbeat, unable to breathe, feeling dizzy and extremely scared or anxious all at once.

You can recover from mental illness

With appropriate care, you can recover from a mental health problem. One of the most important things that help with this is compassion and understanding from those around you. A person with a mental illness often faces isolation and discrimination from others – people may react with embarrassment, rejection and abuse if they don’t understand why you are acting unusually.

Getting the help you need

If you think you are experiencing a mental health problem there are many places to go to get help – from seeing your GP and accessing self-help resources, like websites and books, right through to seeing a specialist health care professional or accessing an emergency service. 

Wellbeing for your family member and yourself

There are many things you can do towards maintaining your own or someone else’s wellbeing. The best thing you can do is talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling and ask for help when you need it. 

If you have support for yourself it also makes it easier to assist others, your health and wellbeing are important too. You and your family could also use the confidential counselling phone lines at times when you feel you need extra support or to work out your own self-care plan. 

Supporting Families is a national organisation with a Whanganui branch (link to provider page). It supports family and whānau to provide the best possible quality of life and recovery to their loved one who has a mental illness, and helps family members with their own self-care.

If you are interested in support groups for a specific illness, visit the Mental Health Foundation’s A to Z of mental health conditions webpage where each topic will display relevant support groups.