We talk a lot about mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, but what does mental health really mean?
Good mental health isn’t just the absence of mental illness.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
“Good mental health is an ability to manage your day to day life and feel good about it,” says Janet Hopkins, general manager at Mindful Employer. “It’s when you’re not thinking about how you’re feeling. Your able to cope with the challenges of day to day life.”
When your mental health is good, your whole life benefits. You’re more creative and productive, it’s easier to learn new things, you feel more confident in social situations and your relationships improve. Good mental health is also associated with improved physical health and a longer life expectancy.
Common mental health conditions
Throughout our lives, we are pretty much guaranteed to experience a problem with our physical health at one time or another. It’s the same with mental health. Each year, one in five people in Australia experiences a mental illness at any one time. One in two will deal with a mental health issue over their lifetime.
The most common mental health conditions are anxiety and depression. Anxiety, which affects two million Australians each year, is caused by a combination of factors rather than a single trigger. Some people have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, while others possess personality traits that are associated with the condition. Anxiety may develop after a person experiences a stressful life event such as pregnancy and labour, abuse, or the death of a loved one, or problems with their physical health.
There are different types of anxiety conditions. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is where a person feels anxious most days over at least a six-month period. Social anxiety is characterised by the fear of being embarrassed in social settings. Specific phobias involve intense fear of a particular object or situation, such as travelling on a plane. Panic disorder, which affects around 2 percent of the population, comes with recurrent panic attacks. Treatment options for these conditions include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), medication, anxiety management strategies and lifestyle changes.
Depression affects one million Australians each year. Feeling low is a regular part of life, but if feelings of sadness persist for weeks and you lose interest in day-to-day activities, you may be suffering from depression. Emotional symptoms can include irritability, unhappiness, and feeling worthless, while physical symptoms can include headaches, tiredness, sleep problems and gut issues.
Like anxiety, there are different types of depression: major depression (such as postnatal depression), bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Antidepressant medication is the most common type of treatment. Psychological therapies can also play a valuable role in the recovery process.
How to care for your mental health
In the same way that you need to do regular exercise to keep fit and maintain your physical health, you need to work at staying mentally well too.
The Think Mental Health website offers a list of ways we can look after our mental wellbeing that includes eating well, getting enough sleep and being physically active. Make sure you take the time to relax and take a break from work or whatever is worrying you – try incorporating a mindfulness practice like meditation into your daily routine. It’s also important to invest in relationships and spend time with others, whether it’s part of a community group, on the sporting field, or just dinner with friends or family.
If you are struggling with your mental health, the most important thing you can do is to talk about it. Tell a friend how you are feeling and see your GP for professional advice. “If you’re concerned about your mental health, go and speak to somebody,” says Hopkins. “Like a physical illness, the sooner you get onto it, the better.”
If you are suffering a mental illness or you would like more information about mental health, visit the beyondblue website or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.