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Your questions answered

Your most pressing questions about mental illness are answered by people with lived experience, carers and the SANE Help Centre. Click a question and then the images to see what people had to say.

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Danielle says …

When I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I noticed over time that my mood changed - there was a change in my character, I was flipping between lack of drive and overdrive, and my intake of alcohol increased. I also suffered from insomnia, self-loathing and thoughts that weren't reality. I was always crying and hated being around people.

Since learning more about myself and overcoming depression, I can see the changes in emotions, lack of sleep and suicidal thoughts etc. This is a similar situation for my brother Wayne, who suffers from schizophrenia. He went from a happy-chappy teen to becoming dark, wanting to be isolated, yet yearning for help.

Aisha says …

I think it can be very difficult to discern something that is so incredibly complex in nature and almost entirely dependent on perspective — whether it be cultural, spiritual, clinical or otherwise. Fundamentally I think that once concerns arise for the wellbeing of self or others, that needs to be communicated and steps can be taken from there.

Harrison says …

I think the best way to determine that is by asking if the problems you’re having are disrupting your life. Someone who has an occasional sad day might not have a mental illness, but someone who (for instance) can barely get out of bed to care for their kids or get to work because they are depressed might have a mental illness.

Meet Harrison

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Is someone you know unwell?

Tim says …

Has there been a change in the person's behaviour and demeanour in recent times? Is the person happy with their life? Are they functioning at a reasonable level in most areas of life — daily activities, relationships, integration with community, work, leisure activities, etc? If not, talk about this with others such as your GP or another health professional for their opinion.

Janna says …

The biggest clue is when their behaviour becomes a serious concern and impacts on their ability to function effectively in life, or causes upheaval within the home/family environment.

Any persistent shift in mood is another good indicator of mental illness, as is acting out of character or feeling that the person has changed. The changes can be very subtle initially and can be difficult to identify.

It’s also important to pay attention to any external feedback you receive (such as comments from friends, family, etc) that questions whether everything is alright or suggests something doesn’t seem right.

Related

Is someone you know unwell?

SANE's advice …

A mental illness, like anxiety or depression, is essentially a label for a group of symptoms. You are diagnosed with that illness if you report a number of those symptoms.

For example, depression is diagnosed when you are feeling sad frequently, have lost interest in things you used to enjoy, feel increasingly irritable, worthless and have difficulty with focus and memory. You may also have trouble sleeping, experience changes to your appetite and find yourself with less energy and motivation.

Diagnosis opens the door for treatment and support, but it’s common for the person experiencing the symptoms to be the last to realise there’s something wrong. They need someone close to them — a family member, friend or colleague — to point out that something has changed.

It can be tempting to dismiss such concerns. When mental illness strikes, people are often putting so much effort into just keeping going that they don’t want to hear this feedback. It can be frightening to acknowledge they’re not really coping and need to accept help.

But it can also be a relief to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and there's hope to be gained from reaching out for support.

If you have any concerns about yourself or someone you know, please talk to them or to your GP. Information and support is also available from the SANE Helpline (1800 18 7263) which is staffed by mental health professionals who can talk to you about your situation and offer guidance on next steps.

Related

Is someone you know unwell?

Dov says …

There is no special formula for caring for someone with mental illness. It requires compassion and understanding. People suffering with mental health issues just want to know that you are there to support them. Be there for the person in whatever capacity you can and try not to stay away as this will only add to their burden of suffering and sense of isolation.

It can be confronting seeing a loved one going through a mental health crisis, but try and remember that they are not themselves and have more chance of coming out the other side with your support.

Meet Dov

Aisha says …

I found that those who were patient and simply present through my times of struggle were the most genuinely supportive. They didn't impose their ideas about how I should be feeling or what I should be doing but rather allowed me the space to go through what I was going through and listened without judgement or assumption. More than anything I just wanted to be heard and to feel understood.

Laura says …

It is important that the person with mental illness is able to have choice and agency in their lives. Don’t make their decisions for them, and recognise their perspective and wishes. They may need support with certain things but not others. For example, they may need practical support (a lift to appointments, help with shopping) rather than discussing emotional things. Give them time and tell them you are there if they wish to talk.

Take some time to research their mental illness (if you know what it is) so you have some understanding, but don’t get hooked by diagnosis. Ask them about their experiences, understandings and triggers, and how they wish to be supported and cared for.

It is also very important to take care of yourself, too! If you are not well, it is impossible to care for another person. Practice self-care and share the caring responsibilities with others if that’s a possibility.

Related information

SANE's guide for families, friends & carers

How to help in a crisis

What I wish I knew when I became a carer

Tim says …

In the same way as you would with someone without a mental illness always consider what is best for them, but don't try to impose your own values and life choices on them. Instead, try to maximise their independence and reflect on your interactions.

Janna says …

Normal boundaries, rules, regulations, activities of daily living, etc. do not exist when dealing with someone with mental illness. It’s often difficult to see past the externalised behaviour of the illness and remember that the person is unwell.

As a carer I found myself becoming increasingly distressed, because I kept forgetting that the reason behind them not wanting to get out of bed, or displaying anger, or not tending adequately to personal hygiene, etc. were all part of the illness.

I mistakenly also believed that this behaviour could be altered or adjusted, because I didn’t fully understand how all-encompassing and debilitating mental illness can be. The more I tried to impose ‘normality’, the harder it became and all I did was create more stress for all concerned.

I became a far more effective carer when I stopped worrying about the non-conformity and decided to just go with the flow. It requires shifting your perspective from the behaviour to the person and understanding that they are not intentionally behaving in the manner they are.

Related information

SANE's guide for families, friends & carers

How to help in a crisis

What I wish I knew when I became a carer

SANE's advice …

Caring for someone with mental illness can be very rewarding, but of course it also comes with a range of challenges. Changes in your loved-one can be hard to cope with, so the more you know about their condition and its treatment, the better you’ll understand and anticipate those changes and maintain hope for their recovery.

Attending meetings with your loved-one’s treatment team can inform your approach to caring and improve their understanding of what’s happening at home. Get written permission to communicate with the team — it will help overcome confidentiality restrictions.

Try to maintain a balance between caring for yourself and for your loved-one. When you make time to connect with friends, get some exercise, grab an early night or midday movie, you’re not only refuelling your reserves of compassion and resilience, but also modelling healthy behaviours that can inspire your loved-one.

Lastly, it’s worth checking out carer networks, where you can find information, get support and connect with people in a similar situation. SANE’s forums can also connect you with people who understand. Being a carer can be isolating, so building a community around you, whether online or in person, can provide you with the support you deserve.

Carer Support Services

SANE Australia Carers Forum

Carers Australia 1800 242 636

Arafmi Mental Health Carers Australia 1300 554 660

Related information

SANE's guide for families, friends & carers

How to help in a crisis

What I wish I knew when I became a carer

Adele says …

There is no ideal time or method of disclosure. It really depends wholly on the situation and people involved. And you never completely know whether someone can be trusted — I have made some major errors in judgment, but I still generally trust my instincts. I’ve been right more often than wrong.

However, the law now protects us, at least on paper, so I make a point of disclosing to new employers, even though this can be challenging and scary! In reality, discrimination on the grounds of mental illness is virtually impossible to prove. I figure that it is part — but not all — of who I am, and if an employer/colleague defines me negatively as a result, then they are probably not someone I want to be associated with anyway.

Aisha says …

I always use my discretion before disclosing my diagnosis and previous mental health status. Not out of shame or embarrassment — quite the opposite as I have been very much the open book. It's more out of the respect for the experience. If I don't have the opportunity to talk about it with the depth required to paint a holistic picture, I don’t mention it.

You need to be in a very comfortable place to share your experiences with those outside of your close circle. If you have any doubts about disclosing, don’t. I always stop and think about what it is I hope to gain from sharing and whether I am searching for something in someone else that I need to first address in myself.

Laura says …

You should never feel that you have to disclose anything you don’t want to.

If you're talking about the mental health of others (such as a person you're caring for or friends), make sure they are ok with it and you know what they are comfortable with you disclosing, and to who. Always keep in mind privacy and use respectful language when talking about the person (or yourself!).

It’s impossible to be certain of the person’s response to your disclosure, but trust your instincts.

Related information

Getting back to work

Your legal rights & responsibilities

Janna says …

Deciding when to disclose a mental health disorderis a very personal decision that is governed by many factors.

Personally I believe in being very upfront, very early because it is something that you shouldn’t feel ashamed of. The longer you hide it, the more shame you attach to it.

I’ve never been concerned about sharing the information, or who it is subsequently shared with. I look at it as being part of life and just a variation of the human experience that is no different to physical ill health.

Related information

Getting back to work

Your legal rights & responsibilities

SANE's advice …

Disclosing information about your mental health can be a sensitive issue. The decision to do so can vary greatly from person to person, and situation to situation.

For example, disclosing your illness to a friend or family member may be very different to disclosing to your employer or doctor. It’s really a matter of personal judgement, based on your relationship with the person and how helpful or unhelpful it might be for you to disclose to them.

Disclosing to someone who is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with mental illness may lead to negative outcomes like stigma, discrimination or gossip.

On the other hand, disclosing to supportive friends, family or medical professionals may help them better understand and support you in your recovery. And while there’s generally no legal duty for you to disclose to your workplace, doing so may help the organisation make reasonable adjustments to your work environment so that you can perform your duties more effectively.

If you’re considering disclosure, ask yourself some questions:

  • Why am I disclosing this information? What purpose will it serve? Will it be helpful or unhelpful for me?
  • What is my relationship with this person? What might they do with this information if I tell them? Will they keep this information confidential if I ask them to?
  • How do I want this person to respond? How might I feel if they don’t respond how I had expected?

Related information

Getting back to work

Your legal rights & responsibilities

Dov says …

When facing discrimination and prejudice, you will invariably experience feelings of hurt, anger and rejection. So it’s important to step back from the immediate situation and allow these feelings to subside in order to adopt a rational stance.

A major precursor to discrimination and prejudice is ignorance. If possible, aim to educate the people involved about mental illness to try break down stigma and ignorance. If this approach is not possible, you may need to distance yourself from these kinds of negative influences.

If the discrimination occurs in the workplace, it is important to stay strong and report the incident to senior management. If this is not feasible, seek legal counsel to learn your rights which are readily available to protect yourself against discrimination and prejudice.

Meet Dov

Harrison says …

It depends on how willing you are to engage with people who are prejudiced. If you’re willing, I’ve found that education, and helping them to see the experience of mental illness from another’s perspective can really change minds. If you’re not willing (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then it’s best to distance yourself from the problem as best you can, and remind yourself that the behaviour of others isn’t your responsibility.

Meet Harrison

Laura says …

Normally this comes from lack of education and/or personal experience of mental illness. It helps to personalise issues — maybe discuss your own experiences (if you feel comfortable). If the person is using prejudiced or discriminatory language, call them out — say you don’t find it appropriate and that it has real implications for people with mental illness.

Silence can be an indicator that you accept their behaviour and views. However, you are also not responsible for their views or for changing them. If you do not feel comfortable to challenge them, it’s also completely fine to walk away from the situation. Self-care comes first!

Related information

The SANE guide to stigma

Dispelling the myths

Tim says …

Do a cost benefit analysis — what will you gain by calling it out, what is the down side? If it's possible to address it in a rational and safe discussion, do so. Sometimes though it's best to ignore it unless you are up for a stressful battle. Addressing ignorance is massive task. If legal boundaries have been crossed, speak to an appropriate professional.

Janna says …

The best way to respond to discrimination and prejudice is to consistently remind others that mental illness is an unseen illness and worthy of consideration as much as any other illness. It may also be worthwhile to remind people that one in five people in Australia will experience a mental illness. 

Related information

The SANE guide to stigma

Dispelling the myths

SANE's advice …

Discrimination and prejudice can happen anywhere: at work, with family and friends, on the street or within the healthcare system.

Responding to discrimination and prejudice on a personal level, such as in relationships or with friends and family, can be a sensitive issue. It can help to remember that prejudice and discrimination often comes from lack of knowledge and understanding, which can in turn lead to fear. Although anger is a natural response, try to give friends and family the benefit of the doubt — respond calmly and try to educate them about mental illness.

If discrimination or prejudice happens publicly, such as in the workplace or healthcare system, you can take legal action to protect your rights. A number of government organisations are set up to manage complaints and provide support, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, Fair Work Australia and state-based Health Care Complaints Commissions.

There are also pro-bono legal support services in each state, including QPILCH in QLD and Justice Connect in Victoria. Many states also have advocacy services, including ADACAS in the ACT, the Mental Health Advocacy Service in WA and the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council.

Mental illness is common, affecting one in five people each year, so it is something we’ve all been in contact with but something that isn’t always discussed openly. Every time we talk openly about mental illness we’re increasing understanding and challenging fears, helping to address discrimination and prejudice.

Related information

The SANE guide to stigma

Dispelling the myths

Adele says …

After more than 40 years of regular suicidal thoughts, I’ve developed a mental shopping list of strategies, depending on the type and severity of the thoughts. I use talking, writing, music and other distractions. Having the list helps in itself, because it reminds me there are choices.

I also manage my stress levels carefully and prioritise self-protection above everything, because work, relationships etc are irrelevant if I'm not functioning due to self-destructive thoughts and actions. The benefit of time is that I know now the thoughts eventually pass, and that I have a degree of choice and control over them.

Nicci says …

There are several stages associated with thoughts of suicide and everyone transverses these at varying speeds.

It could be five days between the first suicidal thought and actioning a plan, or thoughts may never get past deciding on a means. But sometimes it can get there in an hour, so don't delay advising those close to you that you are having thoughts of suicide and if /when the thoughts progress to the next stage.

Prepare a safety plan to share with those closest to you, including contact numbers for your GP, psychiatrist and emergency contacts. Include things like details of past episodes and the timeframe you have moved through the stages. List contact names and numbers in preferred order of contact, for you to call when you start having suicidal thoughts.

Do not delay in making contact. The first call should be to your GP/psychiatrist to get an appointment for assessment, then those close to you. All you are doing is saying 'Hey, I'm not travelling too well and just wondered if you could touch base with me regularly and monitor my mood'.

Tuck that pride away. You are not a burden, these people love you and want to help.

Lee-ann says …

Find THAT person in your life you can trust and tell anything to. If you start planning suicide, you are already in trouble. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. It doesn't mean you will be locked away if you say it out loud. It gives you the opportunity to receive help.

Grab a box and put all your favourite happy photos, memories, keepsakes, reminders of people loved, times shared and anything else you know that will make you have second thought about suicide. On the bottom of the box have five phone numbers of close friends/GP/family and ring someone. Keep ringing until you can speak to someone.

And just know that you are not alone.

Related information

The SANE guide to staying alive

Finding help if you're feeling suicidal

Supporting someone having thoughts of suicide

Janna says …

When dealing with someone else's suicidal thoughts, my first action would be to do a risk assessment. Risk assessments can be found online and are a good way of determining how serious the thoughts are, which in turn will suggest how to react. There are many strategies that can help, including engaging in diversional activities or simply talking.

Assure them that you are there for them and that you care. Don’t be frightened to talk about the suicidal thoughts with them, and if at all concerned, seek immediate help.

Related information

The SANE guide to staying alive

Finding help if you're feeling suicidal

Supporting someone having thoughts of suicide

SANE's advice …

Feeling suicidal is scary. But remember, those feelings do not necessarily mean you want to die, only that you have more pain than you can cope with at the time. No problem lasts forever, life circumstances change and people recover from illness. A temporary problem doesn’t need to be solved with a very permanent solution.

Thoughts of suicide can be very intrusive. Thankfully, there are some ways to manage the thoughts, and keep yourself safe.

  • Develop a safety plan with contact numbers and stay safe actions that work for you
  • Contact your health professional
  • Promise to give yourself 24 hours before acting
  • Remove things you could use to harm yourself
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs
  • Call someone you trust — you do not necessarily have to talk about your feelings, but connecting can help you feel better
  • Distract yourself by doing something you enjoy
  • Consider some personal goals you still want to achieve no matter how small.

If you don't feel you can stay safe, make sure you contact either 000, the mental health team at your closest major hospital or your treating health professional. You don't need to experience these emotions alone.

Once the immediate threat has passed, take care of both your physical and mental health. Eat healthy meals, exercise, build up a good supportive network of friends and health professionals, and develop personal goals you can work towards.

Suicidal feelings can be overwhelming, but you can survive. Some support contact numbers to call include:

Crisis and support services

  • Emergency Services 000
  • Crisis Assessment Team (CAT) or Psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) at local major hospital
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Phone Counselling
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • Information and advice on mental illness
  • Contact SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263
  • SANE Forums

Related information

The SANE guide to staying alive

Finding help if you're feeling suicidal

Supporting someone having thoughts of suicide

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