Everyday People and Mental Illness

Everyday People and Mental Illness

HE Code: 
Booklet A5
Publication date: 
19 March 2007
Status: This resource is online only.
General information on mental illness including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder.

Mental Health: You’re looking at everyday people.

Myths about mental illness.

How many of these myths about mental illness have you heard?

Many mentally ill people are dangerous and violent.
Once you’ve had a mental illness you can never recover.
People with a mental illness have a split personality – like Dr Jekyll.
Mental illness isn’t common and it’s got nothing to do with me.

These statements are all common. They’re also untrue. And they are damaging to the thousands of people in New Zealand who have experienced, and may live with, a mental illness.

That’s why we need to try to understand the truth about mental illness.

After all, we’re talking about everyday people.

Physical health and physical illness.

We all know the difference between being physically healthy and physically ill. We’ve all felt unwell at some stage. And mostly it’s easy to see when people have something physically wrong with them, like a broken leg, for example.

What is mental illness?

The word “mental” simply means “to do with the mind”. “Mental illness” is a term that refers to a group of illnesses that affect a person’s mind – much the same as “heart disease” refers to a group of illnesses that affect a person’s heart.

Mental illness is invisible. Yet it can affect how a person thinks, talks, feels and behaves towards others and themselves.

Because people do no understand much about mental illness they may have unreasonable fears about it.

The truth is that mental illness can affect anyone. There are many different types of mental illness. Some people may experience a mental illness once, and then fully recover. Others require ongoing treatment, much the same as people with some physical illnesses like diabetes and arthritis require ongoing treatment.

People can often be frightened by their mental illness. They need the same understanding, support and acceptance as people who are physically ill. Mental illness is no different. No one should be blamed for having a mental illness.

Aren’t all mentally ill people dangerous and violent?

No. Most people with a mental illness are unlikely to be dangerous or violent. They’re much more likely to be frightened than frightening.

Sadly, much has been made of the link between mental illness (particularly schizophrenia) and violent offending.

The truth is that only a very small number of people with a mental illness have a history of violent offending. Most people who are having psychiatric help or who have been in hospital are not violent or dangerous.

How many people have a mental illness?

Mental illness affects many people from every walk of life. At any one time as many as one in four people may be experiencing mental health problems. Some mental illnesses are as widespread as diabetes or asthma. So the chances are that at some stage, everyone will come in contact with someone who has or has had a mental illness, or may experience a mental illness themselves.

What makes people mentally ill?

Like many physical illnesses, it is not known exactly what causes mental illness. Mental illnesses can be the result of things such as a chemical imbalance in the body, or “triggers”, such as stress or trauma. It is also believed that some mental illnesses may be passes on from one generation to the next. Drug and alcohol abuse play a part in some types of mental illness. Mental illness often occurs as a result of a combination of these factors.

If I get stressed out, does that mean I’m mentally ill?

We all need a level of stress in order to be healthy. But just as some people get physically ill from too much stress and develop such things as high blood pressure, other people can become mentally ill.

From time to time, everyone can feel sad, depressed, anxious, tense or afraid. These are common and natural human emotions.

But sometimes these feelings these feelings can become so overwhelming that coping with day-to-day life – work, leisure, and relationships – becomes difficult.

Sharing your worries and talking things through openly are good ways to look after your mental and your physical health. 

What are the common types of mental illness?

There are a number of different types of mental illness. Depression and anxiety illnesses are the most common.

What is depression?

Everyone feels depressed, fed up or miserable from time to time. This may be triggered by stress or upsetting things happening in your life, but people get over it with help and support from others.

For some people, depression may last longer than the usual unhappiness people feel from time to time in their lives. It may come about for no apparent reason at all. It may come to dominate people’s lives, preventing them from coping or getting out and about. It may interfere with sleep and appetite, and may make it difficult to cope with life. Major depression is a serious illness that can pose real risks to a person’s life and wellbeing, so it is really important to seek help.

Postnatal depression – often called the “baby blues” – affects about ten percent of mothers following the birth of their baby. Some mothers only experience mild depression for a short time, but others may experience more severe depression that affects their lives for a year or more. It is therefore important to get advice and help early.

Depression is an illness, not a weakness. It can be treated by counselling, support and/or medication and, in some serious cases, by a time in hospital.

What is anxiety?

When faced with danger or a threat, it is normal to feel anxious. However, people react to such stresses in different ways. People may experience mild tension, irritability, sleeplessness, difficulty in concentrating or worry that soon passes. Others may have more severe reactions such as experiencing great fear, or panic attacks. Others may develop nervous habits or have ongoing problems relaxing, concentrating or sleeping. These problems may become severe enough to make it difficult for people to hold down a job, meet other people or get out and about.

Anxiety can be treated with counselling which focuses on thinking, behaviour and stress management. It can also be treated with medication.  

Other serious but less common mental illnesses.

Some serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder may cause the person to lose contact with reality. What they see, hear and feel at times may be very real to them but their experience is not shared by those around them. People may be extremely frightened and confused by their illness.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia does not mean “having a split personality”. It is a serious mental illness. When people have schizophrenia they may lose touch with reality and experience hallucinations (seeing things and hearing voices that aren’t there). This may affect the way they act.

These things only happen at the time the person is unwell with the illness. It is uncommon for people to be unwell all of the time. Some people may experience further episodes from time to time.

What is bi-polar disorder?

Bi-polar disorder is also called manic depression. The illness causes people to swing between being manic and being depressed. During the manic phase, a person may become over-excited for no obvious reason, take risks, talk randomly and be unable to sleep. During the depressive phase they may feel very low.

Can these illnesses be treated?

In the past, many people with serious mental illness were simply placed in institutions away from society. Today these illnesses are treated with medication, counselling, education and support and, in more serious cases, by hospitalisation. That means that most people affected by mental illness are able to live productive and rewarding lives in the community.

What is it like to have a mental illness when you are living in the community?

Today there is more emphasis on supporting and treating people in the community because more effective treatments are now available to help people recover and live more normal lives. Treatment can include medication and/or counselling.

One of the biggest issues for anyone with a mental illness is dealing with the poor behaviours and attitudes of other people – such as employers, friends, flatmates and family – towards them.

These behaviours and attitudes often come about because of lack of knowledge and fear of mental illness. The result is that people with a mental illness can often face unnecessary isolation and discrimination.

They may find it hard to find a job or a place to live, to keep custody of their children, or obtain insurance.

People with a mental illness want to live a satisfying and productive life like everyone. Their abilities may be temporarily affected by their mental illness, but in general their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are the same as anyone else’s. So is their wish to manage all the usual aspects of their life.

Sadly, it is often only those who are close to someone with a mental illness who understand what they experience.

So how can you help people with a mental illness?

People with a mental illness deserve to be treated the same as everyone else. They don’t expect sympathy, just tolerance and support. That means showing understanding and a willingness to help.

For example, if you see someone walking along the footpath talking to themselves you don’t need to rush up and ask if they are alright. Equally, there’s no need to panic. But if they seem confused or distressed you could offer to help them.

If you have neighbours who have had a mental illness, you should treat them in the same way as other people round about.

If you are an employer or landlord, treat people who have had a mental illness the same as anyone else, and judge them on their abilities to do the job or be a good tenant.

Think of it this way: Mental illness isn’t contagious. Your attitude is.

Where should you go for further information or help?

For more information or help, see your family doctor.

ISBN 978-0-478-19299-5 (print)
ISBN 978-0-478-19300-8 (online)