Settlement Guide

How to identify early signs of mental health issues

Source: Pexels/Pixabay

People with mental illnesses are more likely to develop physical illnesses. If ignored, mental health issues can worsen and lead to other disorders. But with timely help, one can regain control and come back with renewed spirit.

Each year, one in five Australians experience mental health issues, and it is estimated that 45 per cent of all Australians may experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. 


  • It's easy to miss the early warning signs
  • With the right kind of help, people can get better
  • Talking about how you feel with your loved ones can be a great initial step

Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health disorders affecting Australians and people across the world.

The symptoms of depression

  • no longer finding pleasure in activities people have previously enjoyed doing, including their hobbies
  • no longer looking forward to socialising with people
  • noticing changes in sleep patterns and concentration
  • finding oneself more irritable
  • finding oneself more upset
  • finding oneself more defensive
  • finding oneself more sensitive to comments by others
  • finding oneself maybe easily teary

Professor of psychology at Macquarie University, Maria Kangas, says the symptoms may vary in different people.

"There can be a whole constellation of symptoms, and it doesn't mean you have to have all of them," says Dr Kangas. 

She says people may have general anxiety – fearing things may go wrong – and social anxiety – fearing that they would be negatively viewed or criticised.

It’s an exaggerated fear. It’s heightened. It’s far bigger than what an average person is fearful about.

man depressed
Pexels/Quintin Gellar

Common signs of anxiety

  • feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • having an increased heart rate
  • breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • sweating or trembling
  • feeling weak or tired
  • trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • having trouble sleeping

Beyond Blue’s clinical adviser, Dr Grant Blashki, says that not everyone having stress and fear has mental health issues, but one should seek help as soon as these symptoms start affecting their everyday lives.

“So that might be, you can't go to your job, or you can't manage your home responsibilities. So these are sort of warning signs,” he says.

people walking
Getty Images/EschCollection

Dr Kangas says depression and anxiety can make a person easily irritable. Some people may have impulse control disorder where they may struggle to control their anger and emotions, which can cause problems for them at multiple levels.  

"It's a build-up, and that's when people can really explode, and sometimes people's partners or family members or relatives may think, 'Where has that come from?', not recognising that this person hasn't been coping for quite some time," she said.

It could escalate to legal problems as well as risking their job if they really are quite aggressive.

Dr Kangas says impulse control disorder can also manifest in addictive disorders, such as gambling, alcohol and other addictions.

Identifying the symptoms early

Harry Minas heads the Global and Cultural Mental Unit at the University of Melbourne.

People closest to someone experiencing these symptoms are best placed to notice these changes, and it’s important they don’t ignore them.

red wine
Drinking excessively can make someone's depression worst.
Photo by Chitokan from Pexels

They should pay closer attention, but also engage with the person and ask them to talk about what's happening," he says.

It's also very important to create a situation where the person feels comfortable to actually talk about what's happening to them and to feel that they're not going to be either judged harshly or ridiculed or, in some other way, that what they're experiencing is dismissed. 

A lack of awareness and the stigma

Professor Minas was also an advisor to the Commonwealth on refugees and asylum seekers issues for many years.

He says many people from multicultural communities may not seek timely help due to a lack of awareness around mental illnesses and the stigma attached to them.

“Even if it's very clear to everybody that somebody has a mental illness, those people may be kind of kept at home," he said.

Close up of Caucasian couple holding hands in coffee shop
(Getty Images/PeopleImages)

"Families might reduce their contact with their community because they're ashamed, and they might actually resist seeking professional help for the person with a mental illness,” he said. 

If you do not feel comfortable speaking with your GP, multiple helplines are available, such as Beyond Blue. 

The K10 quiz

Beyond Blue's Dr Blashki says people can take an online quiz on the Beyond Blue website, to assess whether they need help with their mental health.   

The K10 quiz asks a person 10 questions and immediately gives feedback about the symptoms.  

“Often, if you just have a mild result, or your result comes back in the average range, there might be nothing to do, but we're also always encouraging people to look after their mental health, especially during this COVID pandemic time," says Dr Blashki.  

"So keep up regular exercise, make sure that you're keeping up a bit of routine at home, getting enough sleep, not having too much alcohol.”

Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood.
(Getty Images/Boy_Anupong)

But if it’s a ‘moderate’ result, you should call Beyond Blue helpline, and in case of a ‘severe’ result, Dr Blashki says you should see your GP. 

"A lot of cultures think that GPs are just for blood pressure, physical problems, but in Australia, our GPs are quite an important part of our mental health workforce," he says.

"They can undertake what's called a GP mental health plan. It means that you get Medicare funding to see a specialist psychologist.”

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. 
More information is available at Beyond

Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Call 000 in an emergency.

This story is also available in other languages.
Show languages