1. Getting the facts right

Last updated: 24 Jul 2013

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In recent years we have seen an increase in mental health literacy in the general community. Considerable efforts have been made by organisations such as beyondblue to educate and de-stigmatise the area of mental health. Despite these efforts, there is still some way to go and many myths and misunderstandings exist, particularly around the work capacity of people with mental health conditions. It is often this misunderstanding that drives prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance towards people with mental ill health.

What is a mental health condition?

Mental health conditions influence not only how someone feels (e.g., sad, frightened, worried, angry) but also how the person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. There are several types, but the main groups are:

  • Mood disorders, like:
    • depression (persistent sad mood, unmotivated, low energy, unable to find enjoyment)
    • bipolar disorder (when depression symptoms alternate with extreme ‘highs’—elated, buzzing with activity and ideas, over-confident to an extreme).
  • Anxiety disorders, like:
    • social anxiety (being terrified and crippled by what other people might think)
    • panic disorder (bursts of extreme anxiety with a range of physical symptoms)
    • agoraphobia (avoidance of situations and places that evoke fear of a panic attack)
    • obsessive-compulsive disorder (excessive checking, washing, or other rituals)
    • post-traumatic stress disorder (psychological distress following a traumatising event)
    • generalised anxiety (excessive worry about many aspects of life).
  • Psychotic disorders
    • schizophrenia (which includes strange experiences and beliefs, such as hallucinations and delusions, as well as social withdrawal and ‘flat’ emotions)
    • some depression or bipolar disorders (when people also have hallucinations or delusions associated with their lows or highs).

Personality disorders are slightly different—they describe maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that characterise the person across situations. Personality is regarded as being on a continuum from ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal or disordered’. Increasingly, diagnostic systems now recognise ‘maladaptive traits’ or personality-based difficulties that fall between normal and abnormal personality. The presence of these personality factors can complicate other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and interfere with social and occupational functioning.

Substance abuse is a related issue that can have a devastating impact on the person’s ability to function at work and to relate to their friends and family.

How common are mental health conditions?

Mental health conditions are very common. The latest mental health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that around one person in five (20%) had experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months and over twice that number (45%, or nearly half the Australian population) had experienced one at some time in their lives.

We know that one in five adults, or 3.2 million people, in Australia will experience a mental health difficulty such as depression, anxiety or a substance misuse disorder in any year.

Along with these frequently occurring mental health conditions, 2 to 3 % of the adult population will experience a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

What are some of the myths about mental illness?

Myth: People with mental health conditions cannot work.

Many people with mental health conditions, across a wide range of workplaces, are highly successful employees. Organisations employing people with mental health conditions report good attendance and punctuality, as well as motivation, quality of work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Of course, people with mental health conditions can succeed or fail, just like any other employee. Things work best when there is a good match between the employee’s needs and their working conditions. Mental health problems can affect anyone, especially if the person is put under extreme stress for prolonged periods.

Myth: Once people develop mental ill health, they will never recover.

We now have very effective psychological and pharmacological treatments for mental health conditions, with most people showing large improvements and some recovering completely (i.e. mental illness can be temporary). Many different factors contribute to the development of these conditions, so it can be difficult to predict with accuracy the degree to which any individual will recover. When we talk about ‘recovery’ we are not just talking about a reduction of symptoms; we are also talking about being able to live a fulfilling and productive life—and, for most of us, that includes work.

Myth: People with mental health conditions are dangerous.

This is one of the most damaging stereotypes. People with a mental health condition are very rarely dangerous or violent. It is much more likely that people with mental health conditions will be victims of violence rather than being violent themselves.

Myth: There’s nothing I can do to help someone with a mental health condition.

You can do a great deal—support from others is one of the biggest factors in recovery for most people. We can start by developing a supportive and inclusive workplace culture that builds on people’s strengths and promotes good mental health. It is entirely inappropriate to use derogatory labels like ‘crazy’, and we should learn the facts about mental health and educate others around us. We must treat people with mental health conditions with respect and dignity, just as we would anybody else.

You can also help people who have a support role for a person with a mental health condition—flexible and understanding workplaces allow carers or support people to undertake their additional role as and when needed.

Myth: Mental ill health is a form of weakness.

Mental health conditions are a result of a complex mix of genetic vulnerability and temperament, early life experiences, and current circumstances. Major stressors (like losing a loved one, financial or health issues, legal issues, work overload) can be significant contributors in precipitating mental health conditions. Any one of these areas, if sufficiently severe, may explain the onset, or a combination of less severe factors in several of these areas may also be enough to explain the condition. Either way, it is not the person being ‘weak’—telling them to toughen up and pull themselves together will not help. The same applies to addictions like alcoholism, gambling, or eating disorders. The individual is not morally weak or ‘bad’—the explanation is a combination of biological, sociological, and psychological factors. The fact is that anyone can develop a mental health condition.

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of findings, cat. no. 4326.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012, Mental Health Services - in Brief 2012, cat. no. HSE 125, AIHW, Canberra.