Understanding mental ill-health

Mental ill-health can affect anyone – including those in small business.

Did you know that over four million Australians will experience mental illness this year alone? Many more of us will be affected as family members, friends or colleagues.

It is important as a small business owner to know about mental ill-health as it can affect you, staff or contractors that work for you, your clients or your family members.

What is mental ill-health?

When we use the term mental ill-health we are referring to an issue that can affect a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Sometimes these will occur as a result of work or life stressors but might resolve over time or when the person’s situation changes. These are often called mental health problems or mental health challenges.

At other times, the impacts on a person can be so significant that a medical professional will diagnose a mental illness. There are different types of mental illness including: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, eating disorders and personality disorders.

Mental ill-health affects people of all ages, genders and occupations, with the rates of mental illness generally peaking in those of working age. The most common mental illnesses affecting Australian businesses are depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

What is depression?

Everyone will experience periods of low and high moods at some point in their lives. Depression is more complex than just feeling sad or low. Depression is a serious condition that affects your physical and mental health – and left untreated, it can be difficult to function at work and at home. Every year, around one million Australians experience depression.

If you have enduring and persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, have lost interest in important things in your life, are finding it difficult to take part in your usual activities; and have been experiencing these changes considerably for more than two weeks, then you may be experiencing depression.

Depression affects everyone in different ways. Some of the feelings most commonly reported by people with depression are extreme sadness, hopelessness, guilt or feelings of failure and worthlessness. It is important to note, that not everyone will feel all of these things and not all of these feelings lead to depression.

“…I read that Sole practitioners, have some of the highest rates of depression, because the expectations and pressure can be really great.”

David, Legal services

For someone with depression, the things that used to be important to them can feel pointless and things that used to be enjoyable can seem like too much effort.

Depression can come with a whole raft of other behavioural and physical symptoms like becoming less social, changes in eating and sleeping patterns or using alcohol or substances to cope.

What is anxiety?

Feeling stressed or having anxious feelings is a normal response of the body that helps you to be alert for threats. It can improve your performance and can help you make better decisions. But if you can’t stop worrying even when the source of your concern is gone—or when there is no clear source at all—then there is a chance it could be anxiety.

We all know the feelings of occasional, healthy anxiety: your heart beats faster, you can become very focused, your breathing changes, you might feel a little sick to your stomach.

But if you have an anxiety disorder, these feelings can be more varied or more intense: you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, and you can’t breathe. Your thinking might become scattered, or it might become fixated on the one thing. Maybe you can’t go to certain places or do certain things because you’re scared.

Because a lot of people experience stress and worry, anxiety can be dismissed as being ‘less serious’ - but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard to cope with daily life.

Did you know that anxiety is the most common mental illness in Australia with over two million Australians experiencing anxiety this year? Research also suggests that it may be a major concern for small business owners.

What about alcohol and substance use?

Each year about 5% of Australians will experience substance use disorders, with men more than twice as likely as women to misuse alcohol or other substances.

Sometimes people use alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to cope with their anxiety or depression. While alcohol, tobacco or other drug use may provide short-term relief from what you are experiencing, in the long-term, it can actually worsen your condition.

Misuse of substances such as alcohol and drugs puts you at risk of physical and psychological harm. It is particularly important to acknowledge when alcohol is becoming a problem for you.

Further information and links

beyondblue's - the facts on depression

Find out more on depression and what services and resources are available.


beyondblue's - the facts on anxiety

Find out more on anxiety and what services and resources are available.


NHMRC's booklets on substance use and mental ill-health

Each booklet aims to help explain why some people feel the way they do, and gives suggestions on how to manage mental health symptoms and substance use.


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