What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a term that refers to disorders affecting the mind. A mental illness is clinically diagnosable and affects a person’s thinking, emotional state, social abilities or behaviours. This may disrupt a person’s ability to work, perform daily activities or have satisfying personal relationships.

What causes mental illness?

Multiple factors can contribute to mental illness, for instance:

  • a chemical imbalance in the brain;
  • stressful life events; and/or,
  • drug use.

Signs of mental illness

Signs of mental illness include:

  • bizarre or unusual thinking;
  • confusion and disorientation;
  • destructive or high-risk behaviour;
  • hallucinations;
  • problems functioning in work or social life;
  • restless, agitated and disorganised behaviour or marked decrease in activity;
  • significant mood changes;
  • significant impairment in self-care;
  • suicidal thoughts or acts of self-harm; and,
  • delusions.

Experiencing one or two of these symptoms does not necessarily suggest a person has a mental illness. However, a person experiencing several signs simultaneously can indicate that a person is developing or has a mental illness.

Common mental illnesses


There is a difference between the normal feelings of unhappiness or sadness, which everyone encounters throughout life, and the symptoms of clinical depression. For example, clinical depression can be experienced as a state of extreme distress where the person feels empty or numb. Alternatively, a person may express depression as a constant state of agitation or anger.

Like any illness, there are different stages and severities of depression. However, a common theme is that a depressed person is unable to enjoy life normally and struggles to exit the depressed state. A persistent depressed mood may be considered a mental illness when the feelings are present all, or most of the time, and last for two weeks or more. In a major depressive episode, someone might also experience:

  • diminished appetite with weight loss;
  • increased appetite with weight gain;
  • insomnia or increased sleep;
  • agitation or slowed movements;
  • loss of all pleasure and enjoyment;
  • tiredness and fatigue;
  • feelings of guilt and worthlessness;
  • poor concentration; and/or,
  • thoughts of death, including suicidal thoughts and plans.


The term anxiety describes the feelings experienced when confronted with a perceived threat, danger or stress. This results in the person becoming upset, uncomfortable, nervous or tense. Anxiety can be caused by life experiences, relationship breakdown, serious physical illness, a major accident or a loved one dying. Feeling anxious is normal in these situations and these episodes are generally short-lived.

However, if the anxiety remains frequent or persistent, is not always connected to an obvious challenge and impacts on quality of life and daily functioning, this can be classified as clinical anxiety. While each clinical anxiety condition possesses unique features, there are common physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms experienced by the person:

  • Physical indicators: panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense and agitated.
  • Psychological indicators: excessive fear, worry, catastrophising, or obsessive thinking.
  • Behavioural indicators: avoidance of situations or scenarios that elicit anxiousness.

How to help someone experiencing a mental illness

The mind of people experiencing mental health issues is likely preoccupied with processing their many thoughts. Accordingly, decreasing their mental stimulation should help and can be eased by:

  • staying calm;
  • talking quietly;
  • keeping the surrounding environment peaceful and minimising noise;
  • reducing people within the setting;
  • avoiding confrontation and not intimidating or controlling the emotions of the person;
  • sitting beside or walking alongside the person; and lastly,
  • being patient.

Where a person can receive additional help and support

Mental illness is common. One in five Australians experience mental illness every year, and 45 per cent of Australian adults will be affected by mental illness during their lives. A mental illness is therefore something that people should not be ashamed about experiencing. Rather, seeking help to better manage the issue is the bravest option.

If you are concerned about a friend or loved one, ask them how you can help. The first action for a person with symptoms of a mental illness is to visit a doctor or other healthcare professional.

There is also the National Mental Health website Head to Health. The website is provided by the Australian Department of Health and offers applications, online programs and forums, telephone services, and additional digital information about mental health. Head to Health can also help you find digital mental health services from several of Australia’s most trusted mental health organisations.

During a crisis, the following organisations can be called for guidance and support:

However, if you are concerned a friend or loved one is at immediate risk of suicide or self-harm, please dial triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How breakthru can help

breakthru understands that mental illness can be an unsettling experience. We provide support to assist people with their mental health concerns, helping to achieve the best possible social and emotional outcomes and meet personal recovery goals. These supports include:

  • One-on-one or group counselling sessions to help manage stress, anxiety, anger and depression.
  • Additional support by working in partnership with carers, families and other health professionals to develop and implement tailored recovery plans.
  • Behavioural and vocational supports to help build capacity for independence and transition into a new educational or professional environment.

breakthru offers face-to-face Psychology and Counselling services in the following locations:

  • Tuggerah (Central Coast, New South Wales).
  • Western Sydney and surrounds (New South Wales).
  • Western Melbourne and surrounds (Victoria).

breakthru also works with headspace in a variety of locations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria by referring customers in need to their services. breakthru likewise accepts referrals from headspace for customers requiring additional disability support, or access to our Prevention and Recovery Care (PARC) and Family Mental Health Support Services (FMHSS) facilities.

However, we can also perform selected services remotely via Skype or telephone if you are comfortable with those methods.

breakthru’s mental health services will support you to improve your mental health, achieve your goals and lead your best life. To receive mental health help, simply contact one of our friendly staff today.