Mental health check, how are you really?

The topic of mental health is no longer taboo, and more of us are joining the conversation. But many of us still have questions…

We asked clinical psychologist Dr. Avril Cowlin to answer some of your most important and relevant mental health questions here:

What is mental health? The world health organisation defines mental health as: “As a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a contribution to her or his community.”

  • Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.

  • Mental health is determined by a range of socioeconomic, biological and environmental factors.

A mental disorder also called a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment to personal functioning. Mental disorders are usually defined by a combination of symptoms expressed in relation to how a person behaves, feels, perceives, or thinks.

What are the most common types of Mental Illness?

Clinical depression: A mental health disorder characterised by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life. These symptoms affect sleep, appetite, and energy levels. Anxiety disorder: A mental health disorder is characterised by feelings of worry, anxiety or fear that are strong enough to interfere with daily activities. Associated with anxiety disorders are panic attacks which can be triggered unexpectedly and cause enormous distress or fear of physical illness such as self-diagnosing heart attacks.

Bipolar disorder: A disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs.

Schizophrenia: A disorder that causes an impairment to a person’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly. This leads to inappropriate behaviour, severe distortion in perceptions of reality and often social withdrawal.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is one of the anxiety disorders where anxiety is relieved by repetitive action. Excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviours (compulsions). Excessive thoughts – often termed ruminations – can lead to chronic depression.

Post-traumatic stress disorder: A disorder that develops or becomes entrenched over time. It is initiated by witnessing or being the target of violence, a threat to life (real or perceived) or other terrifying events. It is characterised by mentally re-experiencing the event, either in nightmares while asleep or by being triggered to remember events during the day. The response is one of fear, anxiety and the need to escape. In this situation, the so-called fight, flight, or freeze response can be triggered despite the absence of physical danger.

Burnout: Burn-out refers specifically to a phenomenon in the occupational (or, rather, workplace) context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. Burn-out is a syndrome that is associated with chronic workplace stress, which has become overwhelming.

It is characterised mainly by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;

  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Substance Use: This is an entire subset of mental health which requires attention on its own. But the main areas of concern are:

  1. Methamphetamines – Tik, meth

  2. Marijuana

  3. Alcohol

  4. Prescription medications

What to look out for:

Both in yourself and your family, friends and colleagues, there are warning signs that you, or they, might be at risk for developing a mental illness:

  1. A sudden change in mood.

  2. Erratic swings in mood.

  3. Deterioration in self-care.

  4. Starting to sleep a lot or not sleep at all.

  5. Withdrawing from others and becoming lethargic.

  6. Odd or peculiar behaviour.

This list is not exhaustive but represents some of the most obvious clues to the possibility of a problem. Who is at risk?

  1. People living away from home and separated from their family.

  2. Students – especially those under pressure to do well academically.

  3. Individuals with a family history of mental illness (in a close blood relative such as a parent or sibling).

  4. Stressful life circumstances, including both financial and interpersonal difficulties.

  5. Loss – death or divorce.

  6. Coping with a chronic illness.

  7. Substance abuse.

What to do? If you suspect that you or a friend might be experiencing the development of a mental illness is imperative to seek help immediately.

If identified, diagnosed and treated early on, you can manage even serious mental illness effectively.

Depression and anxiety are common in the student population. Without treatment can have a negative impact on your ability to study and perform well.

How to deal with stigma? Unfortunately, mental illness is still stigmatised.

However, failure to see past this to access help can result in behaviour that can seriously jeopardise your ability to function and maintain your place in society.

Talking about your problems to an appropriate professional and friends and relatives you trust will help you keep mentally safe and destigmatise this aspect of your health. What role does physical health play?

More and more science and the medical health fraternity recognise how physical and mental health are mutually influential.

Try to keep physically well to maintain and improve your mental health:

  1. Eat regularly and healthily.

  2. Get regular sleep.

  3. Involve yourself in appropriate and enjoyable forms of exercise and social interaction.

Other ways to keep mentally healthy;

  1. Fresh air – appropriate exposure to sunlight has shown to improve both sleep and feelings of well-being.

  2. A healthy, well-balanced diet.

  3. Enjoyable form of exercise.

  4. Developing hobbies and interests outside of work/study.

  5. Maintaining ties with family and friends.


This past year has caused both an increase in stress-related mental health problems and a greater awareness of the availability of professional support. Click here to book a consultation with Dr. Avril Cowlin.