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Understanding mental health problems

Mental health problems cause people to think and feel differently from how they usually do.


It might be different to how the people around them think and act, but for the person with the mental health problem these feelings are real.


Just like physical illness, mental health problems can happen to anyone and people can recover from and manage. Mental health problems are common and anyone can experience one.  Some are more severe than others, and some will have more noticeable symptoms.


In most cases, they are manageable and people are able to live happy and successful lives.


What causes mental health problems?


There are a number of factors that are associated with mental health problems for example:


Family history - If a family member has a mental health difficulty, others may be at higher risk.

Chemical balance - An imbalance of chemicals (called neurotransmitters) in the brain can cause symptoms of a mental illness to emerge. Most drugs used to manage mental health difficulties try to correct this balance. There is also research that suggests the behaviour itself can cause the chemical change in the brain (as opposed to the chemical imbalance simply always being there).


Stressful life events - Things in life that cause stress, or an experience such as grief or loss, experiencing violence or a traumatic accident may trigger mental health problems.

Drugs- Research has shown that using drugs may lead to mental health problems. For example, there has been a link between psychosis and the heavy use of marijuana and amphetamines.


Different types of mental health problems


There are many terms used to describe mental health problems. This is an explanation of some of the common terms used.



When someone feels sad and down for a period of time that is longer than a couple of weeks they may be depressed.

People experiencing depression may experience some or all of:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in what they usually enjoy
  • A lack of energy
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Crying a lot for no reason
  • Feeling anxious.

If someone is experiencing one or a number of these things, seeking help is important. Your GP is a good first step and they may refer you to a psychiatrist or help you themselves. A psychologist is also a specialist who can help you work through depression.



If someone becomes very confused and appears out of touch with everyone else’s perception of the world, they may be experiencing a psychotic episode. When someone is experiencing a psychosis they may:


  • Have hallucinations
  • Hear voices that may not be heard by anyone else
  • Have false beliefs known as delusions
  • Experience paranoia
  • Have strange and disorganised thinking
  • Have strange and disorganised behaviour
  • Have difficulty speaking coherently
  • May appear quite flat.

Some drugs such as hallucinogens, marijuana and amphetamines may trigger a psychotic episode. Treatment of psychosis usually involves medication, and if someone is experiencing a psychotic episode, it is important they seek help from a doctor, psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist.

Friends and family can also provide support.  Achieving stability after a psychotic episode may take some time.



Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness characterised by disturbances in a person’s thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behaviour.


It affects approximately one in every hundred people worldwide and first onset commonly occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, although it can also occur later in life.


There are a number of signs and symptoms that are characteristic of schizophrenia.#


However, the expression of these symptoms varies greatly from one individual to another. No one symptom is common to all people and not everyone who displays these symptoms has schizophrenia (as some physical conditions can mimic schizophrenia).


Generally speaking, symptoms are divided into two groups, ‘active’ symptoms (also referred to as ‘positive’ or psychotic symptoms) that reflect new or unusual forms of thought and behaviour, such as delusions or hallucinations. ‘Passive’ symptoms (also referred to as ‘negative’ symptoms) reflect a loss of previous feelings and abilities.


Schizophrenia does not mean someone has more than one personality or ‘split personalities’.


With medication and support, schizophrenia can be managed. Having the support of family and friends may also be very helpful. The earlier people receive help for schizophrenia, the greater the chance of a better outcome.




There are many forms of anxiety disorders that can stop people from doing what they want to do. Some people have sudden unexplained panic attacks that can seem out of their control. Some people experience phobias like agoraphobia (fear of being in an open space).


Other people become anxious about something in particular. This can lead to obsessive behaviour causing them to check and recheck things, for example: having to go home to check that they turned off the cooker.


People who experience high levels of anxiety can learn to manage and reduce their anxiety levels. A form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be really effective in managing anxiety. Look at anxiety for more information.


Attention deficit disorder


When someone has problems concentrating and staying focused on tasks, they may have an attention deficit disorder. The condition may have started in early childhood. They may be easily distracted, excessively active, or have a tendency to go off into daydreams more than others.


People with attention deficit disorders find situations like paying attention in class particularly difficult, and this can lead to conflict with teachers or other authority figures.


They may feel like the world is against them because of the conflicts that arise due to their inability to concentrate.


People with attention deficit disorders may have a lot of energy and become involved in many activities that can be positive.

Young people experiencing attention deficit disorder may need to be helped by their family and school, as well as receiving good medical support. After proper medical assessment, medication may be helpful in managing symptoms.


Eating disorders

Eating disorder is the term used to describe a group of illnesses where someone has a distorted view of body image with a preoccupation around eating, food and weight. There are a number of different eating disorders including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge eating disorder.


If someone has an eating disorder, it is a good idea for them to get help as soon as possible. This help may come from their local doctor who may then refer them to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.


if you or someone you know is having a tough time with your mental health, there is help and support out there. Check out the Take action section for information on supports.