Understanding mental ill-health

Mental ill-health is an issue that affects all of us. Over 4 million Australians will experience mental illness this year alone. Many more of us will be affected as family members, friends or colleagues.

Defining mental ill-health

The broad term ‘mental ill-health’ is often used by us and others as an umbrella term that includes both mental illness and mental health problems.

A mental illness is a disorder diagnosed by a medical professional that significantly interferes with an individual’s cognitive, emotional or social abilities. There are different types of mental illness and they occur with varying degrees of severity. Examples include mood disorders (such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder), psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia), eating disorders and personality disorders.

A mental health problem also interferes with a person’s cognitive, emotional or social abilities, but may not meet the criteria for a diagnosed mental illness. Mental health problems often occur as a result of life stressors, and are usually less severe and of shorter duration than mental illnesses. These often resolve with time or when the individual’s situation changes. However, if mental health problems persist or increase in severity, they may develop into a mental illness.

Key facts about mental illness in Australia

  • Each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness
  • It is estimated that about 45% of Australians may experience mental illness at some point in their lives
  • Mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability burden in Australia, accounting for an estimated 27% of the total years lost due to disability
  • About 4% of people will experience a major depressive episode and approximately 14% of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in a 12-month period
  • About 3% of Australians are affected by psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia
  • About 4% of the population is affected by an eating disorder at any one time
  • Prevalence of mental illness decreases with age, with prevalence greatest among 18-24 year olds.
  • People unemployed or not in the paid workforce generally have higher rates of mental illness that people who are employed
  • Limited research suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people experience higher levels of psychological distress than other Australians, which can increase their risk of mental illness and suicide
  • In Australia, the prevalence of mental or behavioural disorders among people born overseas appears to be similar to those born in Australia, but research is limited.

Related resource

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Prevention First

Prevention First is a plain language document that provides a new national framework for strategic action to prevent mental ill-health and promote mental health and wellbeing.

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Navigating Your Way to Health

The Navigating Your Way to Health and Navigating Their Way to Health resources have been developed for people who have an eating disorder, people who have eating behaviours that place them at risk of developing an eating disorder, carers and those supporting someone who is living with an eating disorder through treatment and recovery.

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