In recent years we have seen an increase in mental health literacy in the general community. Considerable efforts have been made by organisations such as beyondblue to educate and de-stigmatise the area of mental health. Despite these efforts, there is still some way to go and many myths and misunderstandings exist, particularly around the work capacity of people with mental health conditions. It is often this misunderstanding that drives prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance towards people with mental ill health.

What is a mental health condition?
Mental health conditions influence not only how someone feels (e.g., sad, frightened, worried, angry) but also how the person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. There are several types, but the main groups are:

  • Mood disorders, like:
    • depression (persistent sad mood, unmotivated, low energy, unable to find enjoyment)
    • bipolar disorder (when depression symptoms alternate with extreme ‘highs’—elated, buzzing with activity and ideas, over-confident to an extreme).
  • Anxiety disorders, like:
    • social anxiety (being terrified and crippled by what other people might think)
    • panic disorder (bursts of extreme anxiety with a range of physical symptoms)
    • agoraphobia (avoidance of situations and places that evoke fear of a panic attack)
    • obsessive-compulsive disorder (excessive checking, washing, or other rituals)
    • post-traumatic stress disorder (psychological distress following a traumatising event)
    • generalised anxiety (excessive worry about many aspects of life).
  • Psychotic disorders
    • schizophrenia (which includes strange experiences and beliefs, such as hallucinations and delusions, as well as social withdrawal and ‘flat’ emotions)
    • some depression or bipolar disorders (when people also have hallucinations or delusions associated with their lows or highs).
Personality disorders are slightly different—they describe maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that characterise the person across situations. Personality is regarded as being on a continuum from ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal or disordered’. Increasingly, diagnostic systems now recognise ‘maladaptive traits’ or personality-based difficulties that fall between normal and abnormal personality. The presence of these personality factors can complicate other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and interfere with social and occupational functioning.

Substance abuse is a related issue that can have a devastating impact on the person’s ability to function at work and to relate to their friends and family.

How common are mental health conditions?
Mental health conditions are very common. The latest mental health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that around one person in five (20%) had experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months and over twice that number (45%, or nearly half the Australian population) had experienced one at some time in their lives.

We know that one in five adults, or 3.2 million people, in Australia will experience a mental health difficulty such as depression, anxiety or a substance misuse disorder in any year.

Along with these frequently occurring mental health conditions, 2 to 3 % of the adult population will experience a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

What are some of the myths about mental illness?
Myth: People with mental health conditions cannot work.Many people with mental health conditions, across a wide range of workplaces, are highly successful employees. Organisations employing people with mental health conditions report good attendance and punctuality, as well as motivation, quality of work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Of course, people with mental health conditions can succeed or fail, just like any other employee. Things work best when there is a good match between the employee’s needs and their working conditions. Mental health problems can affect anyone, especially if the person is put under extreme stress for prolonged periods.

Myth: Once people develop mental ill health, they will never recover.We now have very effective psychological and pharmacological treatments for mental health conditions, with most people showing large improvements and some recovering completely (i.e. mental illness can be temporary). Many different factors contribute to the development of these conditions, so it can be difficult to predict with accuracy the degree to which any individual will recover. When we talk about ‘recovery’ we are not just talking about a reduction of symptoms; we are also talking about being able to live a fulfilling and productive life—and, for most of us, that includes work.

Myth: People with mental health conditions are dangerous.This is one of the most damaging stereotypes. People with a mental health condition are very rarely dangerous or violent. It is much more likely that people with mental health conditions will be victims of violence rather than being violent themselves.

Myth: There’s nothing I can do to help someone with a mental health condition.You can do a great deal--support from others is one of the biggest factors in recovery for most people. We can start by developing a supportive and inclusive workplace culture that builds on people’s strengths and promotes good mental health. It is entirely inappropriate to use derogatory labels like ‘crazy’, and we should learn the facts about mental health and educate others around us. We must treat people with mental health conditions with respect and dignity, just as we would anybody else.

You can also help people who have a support role for a person with a mental health condition—flexible and understanding workplaces allow carers or support people to undertake their additional role as and when needed.

Myth: Mental ill health is a form of weakness.Mental health conditions are a result of a complex mix of genetic vulnerability and temperament, early life experiences, and current circumstances. Major stressors (like losing a loved one, financial or health issues, legal issues, work overload) can be significant contributors in precipitating mental health conditions. Any one of these areas, if sufficiently severe, may explain the onset, or a combination of less severe factors in several of these areas may also be enough to explain the condition. Either way, it is not the person being ‘weak’—telling them to toughen up and pull themselves together will not help. The same applies to addictions like alcoholism, gambling, or eating disorders. The individual is not morally weak or ‘bad’—the explanation is a combination of biological, sociological, and psychological factors. The fact is that anyone can develop a mental health condition.

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of findings, cat. no. 4326.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012, Mental Health Services - in Brief 2012, cat. no. HSE 125, AIHW, Canberra.
Mental Health Week is a national event and is held every October to coincide with World Mental Health Day (10 October).  It is an opportunity to promote awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

Mental Health Week is a wonderful example of what can be done through strong partnerships as we successfully engaged with our sector, the broader community, and encourage government and corporate organisations to participate in the promotion of positive mental health messages.

The aim of Mental Health Week is to promote social and emotional wellbeing to the community, encouraging people to maximise their health potential, enhancing the coping capacity of communities, families, individuals and increasing mental health recovery.

This years theme is Celebrate, Connect, Grow
Embracing the success of the 2012 theme for Mental Health Week,  'Celebrate, Connect, Grow' has been chosen again this year, as it encourages all of us to act on the big and small things we can do to increase our own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of those around us.

The theme is about:

  • Celebrating the positive events in your life, as well as the strengths and values that have helped you through more challenging times.
  • Connecting with others by paying attention to your close relationships, or by reaching out and making new friends.
  • Growing: expanding your horizons and trying something new that creates meaning and purpose for you.

Check out  the WAAMH website for world mental health week: with lots of ideas to help promote Mental
 Health, raise awareness and fundraise. There are free starter packs for schools available too!

Also check the events page as a lot of fun stuff is happening!

Go make a difference! :-)

Mental Health and Wellness is a long neglected topic. Mental Illness to some is a scary dark issue, and this stigma is perpetuated by media portrayals of those with mental health issues being "psychopaths" or being "locked up". We need to focus on Mental Health, and reducing this stigma. When someone goes into a general hospital people buy them grapes, flowers and go visit, when someone goes into a psychiatric hospital, people tend to stay away and not know what to say or do. When the person in general hospital comes out we go over with casseroles and offers of help, when the person in a psychiatric hospital comes home, they are often left alone. What would you do if one of your employees, students or friends were to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital? 

Mental Illness is rarely different than a physical illness. Reassurance and support is mostly all that is required. Many of the mental illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance, in this respect its not unlike someone with say...diabetes. It is just our own fears that get in the way. Learning about mental health and illness is key to getting rid of this stigma and educating ourselves, and our colleagues is vital to a good working environment. Like most illnesses prevention is important, and its important to keep our schools and businesses mentally healthy places to be.