Understanding mental health

If you or someone you care about is experiencing mental illness, you need to know you are not alone. There is a great deal of help available within the community.

Understanding mental illness

Part of the reason for negative attitudes and behaviour towards people with mental illness is a lack of knowledge and a fear of the unknown.

Anyone can experience mental illness—it's more common than you may think. So it’s important that we try to gain a better understanding of what people around us may be going through.

Visit the signs of mental illness page for more information.

What is mental illness stigma?

Nearly half (45%) of Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage of their life.

Despite this, people living with mental illness will often experience stigma and discrimination from friends, family, employers and the community as a whole.

Sometimes the disadvantages and isolation they feel can be more disabling than the mental illness itself.

Mental illness stigma can lead to being:

  • denied housing or accommodation
  • refused employment
  • discriminated against in the workplace
  • shunned or excluded from family or friendship groups.

How does stigma affect people living with mental illness?

People experiencing mental illness stigma may feel isolated which can lead to loss of hope and a relapse, or worsening, of their condition.

Importantly, it can stop people from seeking help and support, because they fear the reactions of people they are seeking support from.

Stigma makes many people feel ashamed or embarrassed of their mental illness.

How can I help?

The way we behave around our family, friends and colleagues living with mental illness can have a big impact on their lives and recovery.

So it’s important that we show people living with mental illness the same respect and acceptance as everyone else.

To make a real difference, we need to become aware of the issues and disadvantages people face. We also need to acknowledge the fact that people with mental illness are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

It's often the everyday things that make a difference.

Be sensitive

People who have mental illness can find it difficult, and sometimes risky, to talk about their situation or problems. Be sensitive to changes you notice in them, and ask them if they have also noticed any changes.


Helping others relies on good communication. When you meet someone who wants to talk about their mental illness or symptoms it is important to:

  • be there, listen and be non-judgemental
  • choose the right time and place to approach the issue
  • acknowledge what the person is sharing—don’t brush it off
  • give the person any information you have on available resources or support.

Be respectful

Remember that having a mental health problem is just one part of the person. People don't want to be defined by this alone.

Think about the words you use

Words like nutter, crazy and psycho can be offensive and hurtful.

Be empathic

Helping others relies on open communication, it's important to:

  • be compassionate
  • use body language that shows you are there for them
  • be relaxed and open.

Help them seek support

Listen and make them feel they are not alone and that their issue is important. Encourage them to seek help, such as:

If possible, accompany them to the service or resource, or help them make an appointment.

Find out more about mental health support and counselling services.

Give a sense of hope and future

Most people with mental illness lead lives like anyone else, working and participating with family and friends. The most disabling aspect of mental illness for many is the way they are treated and excluded from those things the rest of the community take for granted.

Further information