Health & Wellbeing

Looking after your mental health

We speak to the experts to better understand mental health, how to recognise potential signs of illness, listen and offer the right kind of support.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians experience a mental disorder each year. While Beyond Blue says about half of serious mental health issues in adulthood will actually begin before the age of 14, mental illness is most prevalent in those aged between 18 and 24 years old.

The signs to look out for

While for each person, the signs of mental illness will differ, there are some things to keep an eye out for. “The big thing is looking for changes,” Graeme Cowan, Non-Executive Director with R U OK, and mental health speaker and author says. “That could be changes in behaviour - so someone suddenly withdrawing socially or someone turning up to work dishevelled. It can also be changes around mood - are they sadder than normal, angrier or more distracted?”

The third important thing to be aware of, according to Graeme, is changes in someone’s life. Simply being aware if they have been through a trauma can make a world of difference. Have they gone through a divorce? Did they recently lose a parent? Do they have a sick child or are they experiencing financial problems? “Some people put up a very good front, we all wear masks,” Graeme admits. “But when you are aware that something is going on, just saying to them ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, are you ok? Is everything ok?’ can really help.”

According to Graeme, it’s these signs and symptoms to look out for within yourself too. “Be aware of your own signs. They can vary for each person but often they are feelings of hopelessness, changes in sleep patterns, thinking in black and white terms and feeling like isolating yourself but then feeling shame that you don’t want to mix with other people.”

What to do

Looking after your mental health can be a matter of making some simple changes to your lifestyle.

  • Exercise - research done by the Black Dog Institute has shown that just one hour of exercise a week can help prevent depression. Key to remember is that changes to your exercise regime don’t have to be huge to feel the benefits.
  • Changes in diet - as headspace says “eating well gives you more energy, helps you sleep better, improves your concentration and, you guessed it, keep a healthy headspace.”
  • Technology - technology is increasingly playing a larger role in health management. There are apps such as Calm and Headspace which provide meditation and music or stories to help you sleep. The Black Dog Institute has also developed Snapshot, an app that helps to measure and monitor mental health and overall lifestyle.

Helping someone else

When it comes to helping others if you notice something may be amiss, sometimes it’s just about starting the conversation. Graeme used the R U OK process, ALEC, to explain how best to reach out. “Generally, what we recommend is to try and find the right place and simply make an observation about the change you’ve seen.” he says. “For example ‘I've noticed you haven’t been turning up for Friday night drinks. You normally do. Is everything ok? Are you ok?’”

The next step, listening without judgement is incredibly important as it helps to encourage the person to speak, ensuring they feel like they are understood. If they do admit that they’re not coping, it’s about encouraging action, whether it be visiting a GP, reaching out to a helpline or speaking to someone. The final step is to check in two or three days later to see how they’re going.

Importantly, Graeme emphasises not to give up just because you get an ‘I’m fine’ on the first go. “Sometimes it's not the first time, the second or even the third time. Sometimes it's the fourth time of asking 'are you ok' that really makes the difference,” he says. Finally, be patient and show some care and compassion.

Graeme says that overwhelmingly when he speaks to people who have struggled they answer with ‘I just wish someone had asked’. Don’t be afraid to ask someone else whether they’re coping and be honest with yourself if you’re struggling. As Graeme attests, the earlier you can spot the signs, the greater the chance of turning it around.

If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone please call Lifeline on 13 11 14

The health information contained in this document is not a substitute for advice from a qualified medical or other health professional. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Always consult your medical practitioner or other health professional in relation to any medical issue or concern, before changing your diet, starting an exercise program, or taking medication or supplements of any kind.

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