Mental health: 8 early warning signs

Raster collage illustration of an opened head with cog gears.

Rural doctor and mental health specialist Dr Molly Shorthouse reveals the potential early symptoms of those who may experience a mental health issue.

With St Helens having five times the national suicide rate, a local doctor and mental health specialist wants to raise awareness of early warning signs – which can include memory and concentration changes, appetite loss and poor sleep  – and of risks for mental health issues – such as having diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Almost half (45%) of Australians are expected to experience a mental health issue in their lifetime[1]. More than 40 per cent of Australians with a mental health condition also have a chronic physical illness such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis or even arthritis; and more than 11 million Australians are known to have at least one of eight known chronic diseases in 2014-15[2]. Research has shown that rates of depression are four times higher among people with chronic pain[3] and 50 per cent of diabetes patients experience depression or anxiety; diabetes is one of the country’s biggest health concerns with more than one million Australians diagnosed.

Last year, the suicide rate among young Australians reached a 10-year high, increasing by 32 per cent since 2006[4]. Possibly even more concerning is the suicide rate in rural Australia, which is around 40 per cent higher than major cities[5]. Tasmania has the second highest suicide rate per 100,000 people in Australia (after NT) [6]   and, specifically, St Helens has five times the national suicide rate.

Dr Molly Shorthouse, Medical Co-ordinator and GP at Ochre Health Medical Centre St Helens, President of the Rural Doctor’s Association Tasmania, and the first person in Australia to graduate as a rural generalist with a specialty in mental health from the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), says it is important to be aware of some of the early warning signs of a mental health issue, which can very often be mistaken for something else.

“There are many signs of mental illness that are less pronounced and easily slip under the radar. People shouldn’t be afraid to seek help in improving their mental health. Receiving treatment is not a sign of weakness but a positive step that can transform your health and wellbeing for the better. We know that when a person’s mental health is strong, their chronic and physical illnesses also improve and similarly, many people with chronic disease do not have their mental health checked, despite the known associations. There are several therapy options available with proven effectiveness – medication is only prescribed when needed,” says Dr Shorthouse.

Dr Shorthouse reveals 8 early signs of mental health issues:

  1. Memory loss or a short attention span. Changes in cognitive behaviour can be a tell-tale sign of a mental health condition. If someone you know starts to experience frequent memory loss – such as forgetting appointments – this could be a sign of depression. Likewise, if they begin to have difficulty concentrating at work or school, thinking clearly and making decisions, it may be time for them to make an appointment with their local GP who may refer them to a psychologist.
  2. Weight gain or loss. Most people are aware that weight loss and a loss in appetite could be one symptom of a mental health issue – but it’s not well known that overeating and a lack of willingness to exercise could also be an early symptom of depression. In many cases, the weight gain itself is caused by depression, not the other way around.
  3. Irritability. Sadness is associated with depression and anxiety, but irritability in men can also point to a mental health issue. While everyone can be irritable at times, frequent or easily provoked irritability in men can be a sign of a deeper issue. If you’re noticing a lot of conflict at home especially, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional to see if something else is going on.
  4. Fauxcialising (or social withdrawal). If you have a friend that starts to cancel plans with you in favour of staying in (fauxcialising) or they become less willing to participate in social activities, it may indicate that something is up mentally. It’s worth making an extra effort to talk with any of your friends who exhibit this behaviour, as it could be a silent cry for help.
  5. Anhedonia. A lack of enjoyment in activities that once gave a person pleasure (anhedonia) is another subtle but common change we see in sufferers. It’s advisable to speak with your doctor if you start noticing these changes, as they can recommend a variety of treatment or lifestyle changes which can make a big difference, like trying yoga or meditation.
  6. Conflict in the workplace. Employees who instigate conflict in the workplace can be suffering from an underlying mental health issue. Businesses should work towards providing mental health support to employees, especially with regard to stress.
  7. Loss of productivity. The number one cause of reduced productivity at work is mental health, which costs the Australian economy more than $12 billion per year in lost work and has significant impacts on staff morale and organisational performance. There are simple techniques that a local psychologist can explain to you, to help employees cope and boost morale.
  8. Insomnia. Difficulty sleeping can also point to wider mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. It is estimated that 60-90 per cent of patients with depression have insomnia, with the cost of depression and anxiety attributed to sleep disorders thought to be more than $170.8 million.

The top 3 therapies trusted by psychologists to improve mental health:

Cognitive behaviour therapy. This treatment involves the use of practical self-help strategies, which are designed to teach patients to think in a positive way and reduce negative mood.

 Acceptance commitment therapy. This therapy focuses on applying acceptance and mindfulness skills to uncontrollable experiences in order to increase psychological flexibility.

 Mindfulness. A form of therapy centred on gaining awareness of the present moment through paying attention in a purposeful manner. It can be used to treat a range of mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

Please select the practice you'd like to book.