Mental health, as defined by the Australian Health Ministers, 2003, is “a state of emotional and social wellbeing. It influences how an individual copes with the normal stresses of life and whether he or she can achieve his or her potential. Mental health describes the capacity of individuals and groups to interact, inclusively and equitably with one another and with their environment, in ways that promote subjective wellbeing and optimise opportunities for development and use of mental abilities.”
Mental health is one of Australia’s National Health Priority Areas. A person’s mental health, as with physical health, is determined by multiple social, psychological and biological factors. According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, mental health “may be impacted by individual or societal factors, including economic disadvantage, poor housing, lack of social support and the level of access to, and use of, health services. A person's socio-economic circumstances (eg employment), may impact on their likelihood of developing a mental disorder.” (National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, ABS, 2007, cat. no. 4326.0)
The Wesley Report: Keeping Minds Well (2010) found that mental health problems affect the majority of people (53 per cent) in New South Wales at some point in their lives. This represents more than 2.8 million people. The survey found women are more likely than men to perceive that they suffer from mental illness, as are those in rural areas compared to metro areas where the proportion rises to 60 per cent.
The most common mental health problem people feel they suffer from is depression, with one in four people self-reporting that they are affected. Estimates for the lifetime incidence of this condition vary from around one in four to one in five people. It is clear, however, that the incidence obtained in The Wesley Report: Keeping Minds Well is higher. This increase could be accounted for by the self-reporting methodology used.
Depression rates are higher in rural areas where the incidence approaches half (46 per cent). Three in 10 people have suffered from anxiety, which is the second most common mental illness. Women are more likely to feel they suffer from anxiety than men, with the incidence rising to more than a third (36 per cent). Women are more likely to feel they suffer from a phobia than men, although it may be that women are simply more comfortable reporting an illness.
Disturbingly, a third of those who believe they are depressed do not seek any treatment, and almost half those who feel they are suffering from anxiety. The proportion for other conditions is more striking with almost nine in 10 self-reported phobia sufferers not seeking treatment. A majority of those with eating disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) do not seek help. Eating disorders in particular are highly likely to be hidden by sufferers due to the social stigma attached. OCD may be highly unreported due to a larger proportion of sufferers reporting severity as ‘mild’.
Conditions which are likely to have a major detrimental impact on quality of life are more likely to be diagnosed and treated, such as psychotic disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although around a quarter of those claiming to have these conditions are not diagnosed by a professional.