Mental Health

Mental health is an issue that affects everyone. If a person is not experiencing mental ill health themselves, they might be caring for someone who does have mental health concerns or know someone who does (whether or not that person has disclosed their condition).

The Australian Government’s Department of Health states “A person’s mental health affects how they feel, think, behave and relate to others. Mental illness covers a spectrum of disorders that vary in how severe they are and how long they last.” The Department of Health has also recognised “Mental illnesses cause a great deal of suffering to those experiencing them, as well as their families and friends. Furthermore, these problems appear to be increasing.” While many people may from time to time experience feelings of anxiety and depression, a mental illness could have a more profound impact on a person’s life, posing challenges to everyday activities such as work, recreation and relationships. Like a physical illness the severity and duration of mental illness can vary depending on the person and the condition. For example one person may struggle with a mental health condition for only a few months with minimal impact on the rest of their lives, but another person may have a more serious condition which they struggle with for their whole life and need to seek ongoing treatment for.

Sadly, in the past and even in the church many people who have experienced a mental illness have been deliberately shunned, isolated, stigmatised and excluded. This sort of treatment is not only against the church’s teaching, it is unfair and inexcusable. A persistent misconception which was more common in the past is that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, but this is absolutely not the case and the vast majority of people, even with a serious mental illness are not violent. Sadly stigmatisation and exclusion for people experiencing a mental health condition can hinder their journey back to full health more seriously than someone suffering from a purely physical illness.

In an ordinary year, the Productivity Commission estimates that 20% of the population is expected to be affected by a mental health consideration. Due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, this figure is estimated to be a lot higher.

The Department of Health estimates that almost half of all Australians aged 16 to 85 years — 7.3 million people — will experience mental illness at some point in their life. The most common conditions are anxiety, affective disorders, especially depression substance use disorders, especially alcohol use, as well as anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, and eating disorders.

Most, if not all mental illnesses, can be treated effectively: “Effective treatments can include medication, cognitive and behavioural psychological therapies, psycho-social support, psychiatric disability rehabilitation, avoidance of risk factors such as harmful alcohol and other drug use, and learning self-management skills.” Like a physical ailment, early and correct diagnoses of a mental health conditions followed by a suitable course of treatment can minimise the effects of the conditions.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “Mental Health Services in Australia”.

“In 2015, Mental and substance use disorders were responsible for an estimated 12% of the total disease burden in Australia, making it the fourth highest group of diseases behind Cancer (18%), Cardiovascular diseases (14%) and Musculoskeletal conditions (13%) (Figure 2) (AIHW 2019a).”

According to the Productivity Commission, Draft Mental Health Report (released October 2019) part of the reason for the deficiency in mental health care in Australia is that the treatment of mental illness is designed very similarly to the treatment of physical illness, and there is less awareness of what constitutes mental ill-health, the types of help available or who can assist.

The Productivity Commission also estimates that “the cost to the Australian economy of mental ill-health and suicide is, conservatively, in the order of $43 to $51 billion per year. Additional to this is an approximately $130 billion cost associated with diminished health and reduced life expectancy for those living with mental ill-health.”

While community perceptions towards people with mental illness have improved over the last few decades, there is still some stigma and discrimination directed at those who face a mental illness. There are a number of long-standing problems regarding the treatment of people with mental health conditions in Australia, including the need for more investment in services directed at early prevention and early intervention.

Mental health issues can be compounded by other social factors such as homelessness, anxiety about meeting basic necessities, if someone has experienced trauma such as having to flee persecution, if someone has spent time in detention as a youth or an adult, in prison or immigration detention, and for people of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Background who are also impacted by a number of other social determinants of health.


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “people who reported having a mental health condition were more than twice as likely to have experienced homelessness in their lifetime (25%), compared with people who did not (10%). In addition people who reported having a mental health condition were also more than twice as likely (15%) to have experienced homelessness in the last 10 years compared with people who did not (6.1%).”

Rural and Remote Areas

In Australia, those who live in rural, regional and remote areas are more likely to suffer from mental illness and have less access to mental health services. One sign of this is that suicide rates in rural and remote Australia are 66 per cent higher than they are in major cities. The rate of suicide among young men living outside major cities is twice as high as it is in major cities. At the moment for those living in rural, remote or regional Australia in communities that have faced drought or bushfires will be facing an even more severe mental health burden, which it may take years to recover from.

People Seeking Asylum and Refugees

People who are seeking asylum and those who have been found to be refugees often suffer from mental ill health due to having faced one or more of the following dangers including trauma, persecution, human rights abuses, war and threats to their lives. This is compounded for those who have spent a prolonged time in immigration detention, whether onshore or offshore, not being able to work, not having access to adequate physical health or mental healthcare and not necessarily being able to reunite with family, plus uncertainty regarding their refugee status or fearing deportation. Numerous doctors, psychiatrists and NGOs have raised concerns about the precarious mental health state of people seeking asylum and refugees, particularly for those who are still trapped in immigration detention centres where there is no possibility of physical distancing to curb the spread of the virus.

Those who have been imprisoned

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in their Report The Health of Australia’s Prisoners recognises:

  • A total of 2 in 5 (40%) prison entrants reported being told they had a mental health condition at some stage in their life.
  • Female prison entrants (65%) were more likely than male prison entrants (36%) to report a history of a mental health condition.
  • One-quarter (26%) of prison entrants had a high or very high level of psychological distress score on the Kessler 10 scale.
  • Almost one-quarter (23%) of prison entrants reported currently taking medication for a mental health condition.

The institute also recognised that “People in prison have a high prevalence of self-reported mental health conditions, and, while often able to access mental health care during incarceration, mental health can quickly deteriorate after release.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that one in three indigenous Australian youth report high levels of psychological distress in 2014-2015, compared to 1 in 8 non-Indigenous Australian youth. In the Australian Indigenous population 19% of the total disease burden is due to mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders.

One of the most serious indicators of the mental health burden among indigenous Australians is that the suicide rate among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is five times higher than that for young non-Indigenous Australians.


Every year in Australia, sadly over 65,000 Australians make a suicide attempt. In 2017 More than 3,000 Australians died by suicide in 2017. (Black Dog Institute, Facts about Suicide in Australia, 2017). Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between 15 and 44 years of age. There are a number of complex factors that might lead someone to take their life, but mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse are two of the most common factors.

If you need someone to talk to Lifeline provides all Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. You can text 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14 from 6pm-midnight.

Domestic and Family Violence

Men, women and children can be victims of domestic and family violence, but it predominantly affects women and children and can lead to adverse mental health consequences for them resulting in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse to self-medicate and suicide Children who have grown up in a family with domestic violence have a higher risk of anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, relationship problems, and alcohol and drug misuse and the long term effect on children of these conditions is not yet fully understood.

For what the Catholic Church has to say about mental health, click here.

The Justice and Peace Office is promoting a ‘Curious Grace’ approach to mental health in parishes. You can access the Curious Grace Toolkit here.

For ways in which you can get involved see our document “Ten Ways to Improve Mental Health“.