We all have days when everything sucks: the last few texts from that guy have been super blunt, your friend keeps sucking up to the mean girl who spread rumours about you last year or your parents still expect you home at 8pm on a Saturday night. But when even getting out of bed is a kick-start to bad day, you might start feeling like you’re not normal. The thing is mental health is the single biggest health issue facing young Australians and one in four young people will have it in their lifetime. Yet, there’s still a very negative meaning attached to mental health issues which often stops many young people from getting the help they need. It’s time to break the silence and speak out about what’s going on in our heads. What is it?
Mental illness is a general term, which refers to a group of illnesses (the same way heart disease refers to a group of illnesses and disorders affecting the heart). It affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people.
Some types include: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, and eating disorders. In numbers:
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues in young people.
75% of serious mental health problems emerge before the age of 25.
Only 1 in 4 young people experiencing mental health problems get professional help.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people. The stigma
Unfortunately as soon as someone admits they’re suffering mental illness a lot of us are quick to pass judgement or change the subject because it’s too uncomfortable to talk about. Headspace psychologist Dr Alexandra Parker says misinformation and lack of understanding in the community means sufferers are too scared to tell people they have a problem. “It’s a common thought [among the public] a person suffering mental illness may have done something to cause the problem; they’re unstable and dangerous; or they’re weak and unable to make themselves better,” Dr Alexandra says.
One of the main reasons for this is there’s lack of education around the issue. “If someone doesn’t understand why a person might develop a mental health problem, its impact, or how it can be treated, this can lead to having stereotypical beliefs,” she explains. And the roll on effect? People refuse to ask for help. “We know that young people, especially girls, prefer to talk about their problems to friends or family members first before seeking professional advice,” says Dr Alexandra. “But if these friends or family have stigmatising attitudes, it can put the young person off getting further help.” Understanding mental illness
For someone who hasn’t experienced mental illness most of the time it’s hard to understand what the person experiencing the issue is going through and why they’re feeling this way. “Some people have a family history, or have had negative life experiences (like losing someone or childhood abuse), or there’s been an event which triggers the first episode (like a relationship break up or bullying),” explains Head of Direct Clinical Services at headspace Vikki Ryall. “What’s important to remember is the development of a mental health issue is multi-casual, meaning there’s no single reason behind how or why it starts. It is a combination of factors coming together.”
While one person might go through an event ,like their parents splitting up, and make it through fine, their sister who’s had the same experience might not have developed coping skills to help them through the same situation. “It’s not that one is normal and one is not. Everyone is going through the same experience but with a different magnitude and effect on their life,” explains Vikki. “Take anxiety for example, everybody has worries. What happens with an anxiety disorder is that kind of response gets generalised to things where it’s not needed.” Am I OK?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between having a tough couple of weeks (like when something major happens like a relationship breakup) and something more serious like a mental health problem. “Generally, mental health problems have some specific symptoms such as lowered mood, sadness and feeling very anxious. However these feelings can occur during times of stress too,” explains Dr Alexandra. “There's no easy answer to this question this is why it's important to talk things over with someone (an adult is normally recommended).” Think to yourself about who you’d want to chat with, maybe it’s a teacher or school counsellor.
What it feels like
After battling depression Marine, 17, decided it was time to speak out and ask for a hand. “Even though I see myself as a naturally social person I’ve always struggled with fitting in at school. It was normal for me to change groups at least twice a term in the hope I'd manage to fit in with the new group, but it never seemed to happen. Being this way for so many years made me very anxious and quite depressed because I felt like there was never really anyone I could turn to if I needed help. Most days I’d come home from school and have nothing planned and nowhere to be so I’d just be stuck in my room watching TV or playing on my laptop. It felt like no one needed me or really wanted to spend time with me. I wanted to make it through school so decided to look for support hoping I could find a better way to cope with my feelings.
After looking up a few places online headspace seemed liked a good fit. Mum booked me in my appointment, but I told her I wasn’t ready to talk – I didn't want her to know what was going on for me yet because at the time I wasn't entirely sure what it was myself. Being able to talk to someone was great. My psychologists helped me get in touch with a local Art Therapy Group where I’ve made some great friends. Since getting help I feel more confident in myself and it’s helped me find different ways of dealing with things. I was diagnosed with depression two years ago, but now I’m more educated on mental illness I know I’ve had it for about five years. That’s why it’s so important to talk to someone and not keep all your feelings to yourself. If you are going through a tough time, no matter how big or small you think the problem is finding someone to talk to is so important. With the right support, the hard times will pass. Everyone feels alone sometimes but it is important to know when it is getting too much to handle.” How you doin’?
If you answer yes to any of these statements it might be time to have a chat to someone you trust (maybe it’s a teacher, parent or school counsellor) or ask them to organise for you to seek some professional guidance. I’m having trouble concentrating and remembering things.
I can’t get negative thoughts out of my head.
I’ve been feeling more stressed and worried than usual.
I’ve been skipping my afterschool activities which I normally look forward too.
Lately it’s been hard to sleep at night and wake up in the mornings.
Things I normally don’t think about doing, like getting dressed or walking home from school, feel unmanageable. How YOU can help
Does someone you care about:
Seem really down? Help by:
• Let them know you are there if they want to talk
• Go for a walk or bike ride with them - exercise can help improve mood
• Do some things together that you know they usually enjoy, like watch their favourite movie
• Stay in touch; keep inviting them to social events, even if they sometimes say no
• Offer to share your notes from classes at school if they are having trouble concentrating
• Encourage them to speak to someone Not eating or you’ve noticed changes in her food habits?
• Learn about eating disorders from reliable sources, eg headspace website, eating disorder organisations
• When talking to your friend, try to let them know how worried you are about them, and not focus solely on food/weight
• Discuss your concerns with the person in an open and honest way, aiming to be non-judgmental, respectful and kind
• Avoid saying things like, "you need to eat more" or "you're being self-destructive"
• Keep in regular contact and offer your ongoing support Told you they’re not OK?
• Don’t panic, stay calm
• Listen and don’t judge them
• Make sure they know it’s common for young people to be struggling with mood and feelings
• Avoid telling them what to do
• Give them information about where they can get help (headspace.com.au, Kidshelpline.com.au or Sane.com.au)
• If you are really concerned about your friend, talk to a trusted adult
• Remember to look after yourself, it can be stressful when a friend is going through a tough time How YOU can break the stigma
This month the Cotton On Foundation and headspace, will launch The Fifth Army - A movement to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health. They want you! Join: The Fifth Army movement by heading to fiftharmy.com.au and creating or joining a ‘regiment’, or enlisting as a solo recruit. You’ll participate in daily and weekly missions, including challenges and pop- quizzes to learn more about mental health mental health.
Act: On March 28th, Fifth Army troops will be encouraged to complete their final mission – bringing the movement to life by rallying together friends, family and workmates for the ‘Day of Action.’
Aim: To educate as many Australians as possible on how to recognise warning signs in themselves and others and to bring awareness to mental health issues. Get involved:
• Join a regiment or creating one with your friends and family.
• Organise an event at your school or workplace.
• Get your friends together for a BBQ and join in the Fifth Army activities from the website.
• Download Fifth Army posters from the website and ask businesses in your area if you can stick them up. For more info check out fiftharmy.com.au.