Promoting mental health, demystifying mental illness, countering stigma and discrimination

Prevalence of Mental Illness

Prevalence of Mental Illness in New Zealand.

Mental illness in New Zealand, indeed worldwide, is a large and growing problem. The direct and indirect costs are substantial - and rising. Five psychiatric conditions; unipolar depression; alcohol abuse; bi-polar affective disorder; schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder are among the ten leading causes of disability - world wide.

So what is mental illness?

The word "mental" simply means "to do with the mind". "Mental illness" is a term that refers to a group of illnesses that affect a person's mind - much the same as "heart disease" refers to a group of illnesses that affect a person's heart.

Because many people do not understand much about mental illness they have unreasonable fears about it.

The truth is that mental illness can affect anyone. There is usually no single, specific cause and contributing factors may be hard to separate and identify. Mental illness can develop at any stage during a person's life but more often emerges in early adulthood.

Serious mental illnesses effects the person's thoughts and feelings in ways that at times make it impossible for them to function as they normally would.

People may have difficulties with; memory; self-care; organising their thoughts; communicating; and feeling appropriate levels of emotion. Lack of motivation is also a common and frequently misunderstood aspect of mental illness.

Symptoms can be further complicated by some of the medications available to treat mental illness. These can have unwanted side-effects. Together, symptoms and side-effects of medication can create behaviours that most of us find difficult to understand.

The good news is that the vast majority of people with a mental illness will completely or partially recover.

So what are the chances of someone experiencing mental illness today?

New Zealand participated in the first ever international study of mental health epidemiology. Epidemiology is the branch of medicine that, among other things, deals with incidence, distribution and possible control of illness.

The findings, released for publication in November 2006 found that:

46% of New Zealanders will have a mental disorder at some time in their life.

31% had had one in the year before the survey was done.

In the previous year it was found that of the 21% of people with experience of mental illness:

30% of Maori had a disorder

25% of Pacific Island people had a disorder.

24% of women had a disorder

17% of men had a disorder

People aged 16-24 were the most likely to have a disorder - with the prevalence declining with age.

People who were considered disadvantaged were also more susceptible to mental illness.

These figures were based on interviews with nearly 13,000 New Zealanders - aged 16 years and older.  International criteria were used to decide if someone had a mental disorder.

It is estimated that only 2 out of every three people with severe mental disorders are seen by specialist mental health services - and the survey confirms this.

Stigma and Discrimination:

One of the reasons people do not seek professional help for their mental health is that the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness can be worse than the symptoms of the mental illness.

Such discrimination is one of the biggest barriers to recovery.

"That is why stopping discrimmination and championing respect, rights & equality for people with mental illness is just as important as providing the best treatments and therapies"Blueprint for Mental Health Services in New Zealand, November 1998.

For a diagnosis of mental illness does not say anything about a person's capabilities, personality or future.

The vast majority of people who have some form of mental illness get better, hold down jobs, make good partners, lovers, parents, are not dangerous and have a great deal to offer their communities.

In fact, the very act of dealing with mental illness often gives people extraordinary strength of character.

They more than ever deserve our understanding and respect.


Like Minds Taranaki gratefully acknowledges the financial support of this website by the Ministry of Health

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Taranaki Mental Health Sector