A mental illness is characterized by a significant disturbance of thought, mood, perception and memory. It is a health problem that affects how a person thinks, feels, behaves and interacts with others. About 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness, however many people will suffer from a mental health problem at some stage in their lives. A mental health problem can also affect how a person thinks and behaves, but it is generally much less severe, and is in reaction to a stressful situation occurring in a person’s life. A mental health problem is usually temporary, however if it is not dealt with, it can become a mental illness.

Mental illness’ are of different types and severity. Some major types are: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorders, personality disorders and eating disorders. The most common is anxiety or depression, where people feel such strong feelings of sadness, fear or tension; they have difficulty coping with day-to-day activities such as work, leisure activities and relationships.

Less common are mental illnesses that involve psychosis. These include schizophrenia and bi polar; and acute episodes of psychosis result in the person losing touch with reality and perceiving their world differently to normal.

Most mental illnesses can be effectively treated, and recognizing the early signs and symptoms, and accessing treatment, can lead to better outcomes.

The stigma associated with mental illness, plus the discrimination and the sense of isolation can have a negative impact on the person, plus their family.

People who live with mental illness may show some of the following characteristics:

  • Become upset or confused when routine is changed;
  • Acute, excessive and seemingly illogical anxiety - being angry or crying when there is seemingly little or no reason;
  • Poor communication skills;
  • May suffer auditory or visual hallucinations - hearing voices and seeing people that don't exist;
  • Paranoia - being suspicious and delusions of persecution;
  • Poor concentration;
  • Short-term memory loss – affecting ability to retrieve information from their memory; or
  • May be at risk of alcohol and other harmful drug misuse.

Treatment for people with a mental illness includes medication, cognitive and behavioural psychological therapies, psych-social therapies and avoidance of alcohol and drugs. The medication may cause some side effects, including:

  • Lethargy
  • Obesity
  • Tremor of hands and body
  • A slowing down of movement
  • Repetitive, involuntary movements

It is very important for leaders to gather some history on the person and information about behaviour and condition. It is ideal to meet with the person before any program starts, so as to develop a rapport and gain some understanding of the impact the illness is having on the lifestyle of the individual involved.

Experiences gained from some sport and recreation programs indicate that it is more beneficial for volunteers to be calm and not ‘too full on’ with their energy and enthusiasm when working with people with mental illness. Staff who are more relaxed tend to help these individuals maintain lower levels of anxiety and stress.