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2. Understanding mental illness

2010 Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers

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2. Understanding mental illness


A male and female worker at a construction siteIt is highly likely that at least one worker in your workplace will, at some point in time, have a long or short-term mental illness. While you do not need to become an expert in mental health, having a better understanding of what mental illness is (including its possible effects on a worker) enables you to be more effective in handling issues that may arise.

2.1 About mental illness

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a health issue that can significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. Mental illness is real and is treatable.

What are the types of mental illness?

Mental illness is a general term that refers to a group of illnesses including, but not limited to:

  • mood disorders (such as depression and bipolar disorder)
  • anxiety disorders
  • psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar disorder).

Further information: Appendix B: Types of Mental Illness.

Who does it affect?

While some people may have a pre-disposition to develop mental illness due to family history, mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of their social background, age, race, ethnic origin or intelligence level. Certain risk factors are also known to increase the likelihood of developing various types of mental illness.

Further information: Appendix B: Types of Mental Illness.

Certain work practices/hazards can also increase the risk of individuals developing mental health issues.

Further information: Chapter 4Creating a Safe and Healthy Workplace for All; section 4.2.

Is mental illness a lifelong condition?

Each person experiences mental illness differently. For one person, it may occur, stop and re-occur, while another might recover completely.

There are a range of treatments available that enable many people with mental illness to function successfully in their private and work lives.

Is mental illness a disability?

The impact of mental illness on a person’s life determines whether it becomes a disability for them and whether it is a permanent or temporary disability. A person may experience one episode of mental illness in their lifetime and completely recover, while another may have to manage their illness for the rest of their life.

The definition of ‘disability’ in discrimination legislation is broad and includes both permanent and temporary mental illness.

2.2 Facts about mental illness

Mental illness can generate misunderstanding, confusion and sometimes fear. As an employer, you may have preconceived views about employing or working with people with mental illness.

Following are a number of facts about mental illness.

People with mental illness can and DO work
People with mental illness successfully work across the full spectrum of workplaces.

Some people disclose their mental illness and some do not. Most importantly, people with mental illness can succeed or fail, just like any other worker.

Examples of prominent people with mental illness who openly discuss and reflect on their mental health issues and have developed successful careers include:
  • Dr Geoff Gallop – Former WA Labor Premier
  • Craig Hamilton – ABC Sports Commentator
  • Olivia Newton John – Entertainer
  • Pat Cash – Tennis player
Mental illness is treatable
Mental illness can be treated. This means that many people who have mental illness, and are being treated, recover well or even completely. However, because there are many different factors contributing to the development of each illness, it can sometimes be difficult to predict how, when, or to what degree someone is going to get better.[14]
The vast majority of people with mental illness are NOT dangerous
It is far more likely that people with mental illness are victims of violence rather than being violent themselves. Only a small number of people with mental illness are violent and this tends to be when they are experiencing an untreated psychotic episode. This behaviour can be managed through the use of medication.
People with mental illness live and work in our communities
People with mental illness do live and work in our communities. The majority of people successfully manage their illness without it greatly impacting on their home and work life, while others may require support to minimise its impact.
People with mental illness have the same intellectual capacity as anyone else
Having mental illness does not necessarily imply any loss of intellectual functioning. Some symptoms and medications associated with mental illness may affect a person’s ability to concentrate, process, or remember information.
People with schizophrenia do NOT have multiple personalities
People with schizophrenia experience changes in their mental functioning where thoughts and perceptions become distorted and are often ‘split’ from reality. Schizophrenia is not about having ‘split or multiple personalities’, as is often portrayed in the media.



[14] SANE Australia (2009) Treatments for Mental Illness – Factsheet 9, SANE Australia website.