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Fact vs myth: mental illness basics

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Everyone’s got an opinion about mental health, but opinions based on myths add to stigma and make life harder for people affected by mental illness. So here are the facts you need to tell the truth from the myth.

Mental illness is real

Our knowledge of mental illness is incomplete, but we can say one thing for certain: mental illness isn’t laziness, attention-seeking, bad diet, mental, physical or spiritual weakness or a failure of character. Mental illness is illness, as real as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Anyone can develop a mental illness

There is no immunity to mental illness. Not everyone develops a mental illness during their lives, but anyone could.

At least 45% of us will experience a mental illness during our lives

And that’s just anxiety, mood disorders and substance addictions in people aged 16-85. Add in young people, schizophrenia, eating disorders, personality disorders and more and the figure is likely far higher.

At least 20% of adults are affected by mental illness every year

Anxiety disorders are the most common, followed by depression. A significant number of Australians are also affected by personality disorders, eating disorders, psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, and more. Some people have more than one diagnosis, and far too many Australians go undiagnosed.

Four million Australians are affected by complex mental illness

At least 690,000 Australians live with complex mental illness (CMI), but an experience like CMI affects the lives of many people around the person with symptoms. For each person with CMI, it’s likely that five other people — families, friends, partners, colleagues and more — are affected. That makes four million Australians affected.

Some Australians are more likely to be affected than others

Indigenous Australians experience much higher rates of psychological distress than the general population, and lower access to mental health services.

LGBTIQA+ people experience very high rates of depression and psychological distress and are the most at-risk group in Australia for suicide.

Mental illness is not more common in rural and remote areas than in cities, but rates of suicide are much higher, services are harder to access and stigma can be higher.

One in seven children aged 4-17 have experienced a mental illness and over a quarter of Australians aged 16-24 are experiencing a mental illness at any given time. Many people who live with mental illness first experience symptoms during adolescence.

Related: Mental illness in younger people

Identifying with one or more of these groups doesn’t mean you will become ill.

Related: Is someone you know unwell?

The causes of mental illness are complex

There isn’t one simple, obvious thing, like a virus or bacteria, that causes mental illness, and that makes the causes hard to work out.

For some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, it’s possible to inherit a predisposition — a greater likelihood that you’ll develop the disorder. For others there seems to be no genetic link at all.

But even then it doesn’t mean you’ll get sick. Your likelihood of developing a mental illness is influenced by a complex combination of genetic, neurological, developmental, environmental, socio-economic, cultural, life experience and other factors.

There’s no link between mental illness and creativity

Experiencing mental illness doesn’t make you more creative, and being creative doesn’t make you more likely to experience a mental illness. Likewise, getting treatment for mental illness doesn’t reduce your creativity, although the side-effects of some medicines can affect you.

Related: Huffington Post’s Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?


Crisis resources

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

Lifeline 13 11 14

Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467

Call 000 for urgent medical attention or police attendance

The facts vs myths factsheet series


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, Australia, 2007, ABS cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS, p.7.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, Australia, 2007, ABS cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS, p.7.

National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) (2014). The National Review of Mental Health Programmes and Services. Sydney: National Mental Health Commission, p.5.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2015). The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2015. Cat. no. IHW 147. Canberra: AIHW, p.80.

Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide, Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p.3.

National Rural Health Alliance (2015). Mental health in rural and remote Australia factsheet, NRHA. [accessed 6 October 2015]

Garvan Research Foundation (2015). Medical Research and Rural Health Garvan Report 2015. The Garvan Research Foundation, p.15

Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven De Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J, Zubrick SR (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Department of Health, Canberra, p.25

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, Australia, 2007, ABS cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS, p.9.

Centre for Genetics Education (2012) Mental Illness and Inherited Predisposition — Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Fact Sheet, Centre for Genetics Education. [accessed 7 October 2015]

Last updated: 10 October, 2016

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