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If you’ve been thinking about mental health, it can help to first define what mental health issues are. From there, you can learn what causes mental health issues and what the signs might look like. This information will make it easier for you to take care of your own mental health.

What is mental health?

‘Mental health’ refers to our state of mind and our ability to cope with the everyday events that happen around us. Someone who is mentally healthy usually feels capable of dealing with the normal, everyday situations that we all experience.

For someone with a mental illness, managing day-to-day life is often a lot more difficult. Mental illnesses are fairly common in Australia, with about one in four people between the ages of 14 and 25 experiencing mental illness at some point.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified definition of mental health and that it’s totally normal for most people to go through ups and downs in life. When these difficulties hang around for longer than usual, and it feels like nothing will make them go away, they may be considered a mental illness. It could also include situations such as bereavement/loss and psychotic episodes - when it is impacting your everyday life and functioning and is upsetting to you or the people around you. 

What causes mental illness?

It’s not possible to pinpoint the exact cause of any particular mental illness, as mental health issues are generally believed to involve a combination of factors that might include some of the following:

  • Biological factors: Someone with a history of mental illness in their family has a higher chance of developing mental health issues, which means that genetics most likely plays a role. Hormonal balance is another biological factor that is known to impact on our mental health.
  • Early life events: Traumatic events that happen at an early age, such as neglect or abuse, can have a strong influence on our mental health later in life. Early caregiving experiences that don't match your needs may also contribute to how you respond to stress later in life. 
  • Recent life events/triggers: Current events can affect our mental health as well, such as persistent stress from study or work, or the loss of a loved one.
  • Psychological factors: Mental illnesses are also influenced by our thoughts and feelings, as well as our surroundings and circumstances. Examples of this include our feelings around our body image or low self-esteem.
  • Misuse of drugs and alcohol: Drugs, including alcohol, have a powerful effect on our brain and the results are often unpredictable. Heavy drug use is known to have a negative impact on mental health.

Common signs of mental illness

Some common symptoms of mental illness are:

  • feeling more worried than usual
  • loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • constantly being in a bad mood
  • having trouble sleeping, or sleeping way more than usual
  • crying for no apparent reason
  • feeling ‘down’, sad or unmotivated
  • struggling to concentrate
  • changes in eating habits (eating more or less)
  • having difficulty performing at school or at work or in other areas of your life.
  • turning to alcohol or drugs to cope
  • having trouble coping with or participating in everyday activities
  • isolating yourself from family or friends
  • thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself or others.

Many of the symptoms associated with mental illnesses can just as easily show up in everyday life, so it’s really important to seek advice from a mental health professional or GP before making any conclusions about what’s going on.

If you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks (or earlier for psychosis), it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something serious going on, but it’s worth having a chat about it with someone you trust. If you’ve been experiencing a few of these symptoms over a long period of time, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with your GP to talk it over.

How to look after your mental health

Although mental health issues aren’t always avoidable, there are some simple things that you can do to look after your mental health. The following suggestions can be helpful in preventing mental health problems from developing in the first place, or can help you deal with milder symptoms of some mental health issues:

  • Do regular exercise (to release endorphins that improve your mood).
  • Surround yourself with supportive people.
  • Set aside some time every day to relax.
  • Make time to do things that you enjoy (such as walking on the beach or playing games).
  • Stay in touch with your friends and family.
  • Take advantage of technology that aims to improve your wellbeing. You could try ReachOut WorryTime.

If you’ve given some of these suggestions a go and you’re still struggling, it's possible that you may have something more serious going on and it’s important to go see your GP. Your GP will eb able to refer you to a mental health professional if needed. If you are worried about yourself or others, call Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Lifeline (13 11 14) or your GP as soon as possible.

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