With Mental Health Awareness Week fast approaching (18 - 24 September 2023), we take a look at the growing prevalence of mental health issues in New Zealand and around the world – along with some of our top tips for staying mentally well.
It’s a tough fact to face post-Covid, but the number of people around the world with some form of mental illness continues to grow.
In fact, figures show that here in New Zealand, nearly half the population will experience mental illness at some stage in their life, and a shocking one in five of us every year will go through some form of depression.1
Clearly this is an issue we need to talk about, without the stigma that is all too often attached in our country that suggests we simply ‘harden up’ and get on with things.
What is mental illness?
We all experience ups and downs in our lives. Sometimes we feel low, and other times we’re able to breeze along seemingly without a care in the world. Those of us with good mental health are usually well equipped to deal with most things that life throws at us. But a mental health condition happens when ongoing symptoms affect our ability to function.
These symptoms may affect our mood, our thinking, our perception, and behaviour – sometimes our physical health too – making it difficult to cope with work, relationships, or any other aspect or demand of our daily lives. And while the link between stress and mental illness can be complex, stress can certainly trigger or worsen an existing mental health condition.
The top 5 mental health illnesses
Awareness is key for recognising any mental health issue, which is why Mental Health Awareness Week is so important - to highlight the importance of our emotional wellbeing and start what can be a difficult conversation.
With this in mind, here are the 5 most common mental health issues facing us today, some of which can occur at the same time:
Depression is the most common mental illness there is, a mood disorder affecting an estimated 300 million people worldwide.2 More prevalent in women than men, depression is often characterised by a loss of interest and enjoyment in the world around you, reduced energy levels, and a general lowering of mood. Feelings of guilt, a lack of self-worth and a lack of concentration may also be heightened by an inability to sleep and changes in eating habits.
Because it can be recurring and long-lasting, depression can severely interfere with our work and relationships, and in extreme cases can even lead to thoughts of suicide. Treatment for depression can include undergoing cognitive behaviour therapy, psychotherapy, or taking antidepressants.
Often linked to depression, anxiety can stem from a wide range of causes: it may be a genetic disorder, triggered by a life event, a social phobia, a panic disorder (panic attacks), or even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Left untreated, anxiety can seriously impact on your day to day life. But the good news is anxiety is also a highly treatable illness, with both psychotherapy and/or medication helping to manage your symptoms effectively.
3) Bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder (or bipolar affective disorder) is a type of mood disorder previously known as manic depression. As the name suggests, someone with bipolar may experience episodes of both extreme highs and extreme lows. The lows can manifest themselves in feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a lack of energy, whereas the highs can involve hyperactive behaviour, an overly happy mood and an inflated sense of self-esteem. With a clear genetic link amongst people with bipolar disorder, treatment can often mean medication and psychosocial support.
4) Schizophrenia and other psychoses
Psychoses including schizophrenia are severe mental illnesses that can impact catastrophically on a person’s ability to interact in society. During an episode, someone’s thoughts and perceptions may become distorted, and they may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not. This may even include delusions and/or hallucinations.
A common symptom of growing older, dementia is a loss of cognitive function – thinking, remembering and reasoning – to the extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and habits. In extreme cases, people with dementia find themselves unable to control their emotions, and sometimes their entire personality can change. Dementia is caused by a wide variety of diseases that impact the brain. Sadly, there are no known cures yet, although palliative treatment is available to ease the suffering and confusion dementia can cause.
Tips for staying mentally healthy
Of course the best way to avoid mental health issues before they take hold is to focus on staying mentally (and physically) healthy on a regular basis. Here are some of our top tips for helping you maintain a positive frame of mind:
Don’t bottle things up – make sure you share your thoughts and feelings with friends, family and whānau, or a medical professional. It will help you stay connected, and could relieve any stress or anxiety you may be experiencing.
• Eat well and exercise – good nutritious food doesn’t just keep your body healthy it keeps your brain healthy too. And regular exercise feeds your brain too. Win win.
• Build your self-esteem – feeling good about yourself can make all the difference. So make sure you do all the things in life you want to do, and focus on the positive aspects of your character.
• Try to relax more – set aside time to be with the people you love. Similarly, take some time for you, and pursue the hobbies, sports and interests you enjoy. Or practice some relaxation or mindfulness techniques. You’ll feel all the better for it.
• Get help sooner rather than later – should you notice any sign of mental distress, reach out and address it before it develops into something more serious.
Many of us are able to manage our mental illness, either through counselling, medication, or both. But please, if you or someone close to you is experiencing mental health issues, don’t hesitate to contact your local GP or medical professional.