Identifying mental health problems and conditions

Read on for information on identifiable symptoms of substance dependency, anxiety disorders, depression, psychosis, self-harm and suicide for yourself or others.

Alcohol, drugs and other dependencies

Have you ever felt:

  • Bad or guilty about your drinking, or that you should cut down?
  • Annoyed you by family or friends who criticise your drinking, affecting your relationship with them?
  • You needed a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If any of the above is true, it could indicate a potential alcohol problem.

Symptoms of alcohol dependence include:

  • Craving – a strong urge to drink.
  • Loss of control – not being able to stop drinking once you have begun.
  • Physical dependence – nausea, sweating, shakiness, anxiety during withdrawal.
  • Tolerance – the need to drink more alcohol to get ‘high’.
  • Lifestyle choices that revolve around the need to use alcohol.

Substance dependence refers to both:

  • Psychological dependence (no obvious withdrawal symptoms or tolerance)
  • Physical dependence.

This means that the cigarette smoker who cannot stop smoking is no less addicted than the chronic heroin user, even though they may suffer only mild withdrawal signs when they stop.

When to be concerned

You should be concerned if the dependency becomes more severe such that it is:

  • Obsessive
  • Compulsive
  • Excessive.

This can also apply to other types of dependency such as:

  • Drugs
  • Overeating
  • Gambling
  • Internet addiction

Download the Alcohol and drug information sheet [.pdf 33KB], which contains information such as:

  • What constitutes a ‘drug’?
  • How come people use alcohol & drugs?
  • The effects of drugs
  • Definitions
  • Continuum of substance use
  • Impact on physical health & mental wellbeing
  • Poly-drug use
  • Where to next? How do I find help?


Everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another. It is a normal emotion that can be appropriate and even beneficial under certain circumstances.

It is also a normal response to physical and emotional stress, which can be produced by virtually any illness.

Anxiety can also be exacerbated by:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor diet
  • Excessive amounts of caffeine or other stimulants.

An anxiety disorder is often associated with specific situations, events or objects. There are different types, but they all generally involve intense feelings of:

  • Fear
  • Dread
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Apprehension.

They can also exhibit distinct physiological symptoms such as:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Trembling
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea.

When to be concerned

Anxiety that is excessive, unnatural and unhealthy can dominate an individual’s life and interfere with their ability to work or interact with people. It may indicate an underlying psychological problem.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing such symptoms, please seek help.

Download the Anxiety self-help sheet [.pdf 33KB], which includes:

  • What is anxiety?
  • Some common symptoms of anxiety
  • Consequences of anxiety
  • Treatment options
  • Tips for self-help.


A handy summary of what living with depression can be like is found in this Black Dog video.

Depression is an illness that affects both body and mind. It is not something that you can just wish away or ‘snap out of’, nor is it a sign of a weak character.

Almost everyone suffering from this condition can be treated, so it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, which include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or ‘empty’ mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Fatigue, decreased energy, being ‘slowed down’
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Loss of appetite and weight or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Attempted suicide
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as:
    • Headaches
    • Digestive disorders
    • Chronic pain.

When to be concerned

If you, or someone you know, have been experiencing any of these symptoms for 2 weeks or longer such that it is affecting your life, please seek help. Struggling on alone can prolong the depression.

Download the Depression: What is it? [.pdf 37KB] sheet, which covers:

  • What is depression?
  • Why do people become depressed?
  • What can be done to help?
  • Self help tips.


Psychosis is a symptom or feature of mental illness, typically characterized by:

  • Radical changes in personality
  • Impaired functioning
  • Distorted non-existent sense of objective reality.

Patients suffering from psychosis are unable to distinguish personal, subjective experience from the reality of the external world. They experience hallucinations and/or delusions that they believe are real, and may behave and communicate in an inappropriate and incoherent fashion.

Psychosis may appear as a symptom of a number of mental disorders, including mood and personality disorders.

It is also the defining feature of:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizophreniform disorder
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Delusional disorder

Other psychotic disorders include:

  • Brief psychotic disorder
  • Psychotic disorder due to a general medical condition
  • Substance-induced psychotic disorder.

When to be concerned

Psychosis is usually a symptom of a serious mental health issue, and you should seek help immediately.

Self harm

Self-harm is any intentional act by an individual to inflict pain or injury to oneself. These actions are generally not intended to produce a permanent or lethal outcome, although sometimes it happens.

Self-harm is a behaviour, not an illness.  People who harm themselves have difficulties coping, and can feel ‘stuck’ when trying to solve problems.  This can lead to frustration and feeling out of control.

Some of the factors that could lead to self-harm include:

  • Recent loss
  • Conflict with peers
  • Bullying at school
  • Intimacy and self-esteem problems
  • Previous abuse or assault
  • Exposure to violence and threats of harm or death
  • Emotional neglect in early life and/or ongoing personal denigration
  • Being impulsive
  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Self blame
  • Alcohol or illicit drug use.

Many factors can lead someone to feel emotionally unwell or vulnerable.  These include:

  • Not having an understanding of one’s own reasons for self-harm
  • Problems with recognising or naming difficult emotions, such as anger, anxiety or depression
  • Being afraid that nobody else will understand the self-harm
  • Being afraid that nobody will know how to deal with or treat the self-harm
  • Fear of being committed to hospital—while some people may require hospitalisation if their behaviour is life-threatening, most do not.

When to be concerned

Self-harm is not about seeking attention. All cases should be referred for professional assessment.

Download the Self harm: Discussion and suggestions sheet [.pdf 50KB], which includes:

  • What is self harm?
  • Why do some people engage in self harm actions?
  • What to do if self harm is a problem for you
  • Tips for coping with the urge to self harm.


Some possible warning signs that someone might be considering suicide are:

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Lack of interest in personal appearance
  • Depression—see above for symptoms
  • Giving prized possessions away.

Suicidal thoughts could be triggered by some of the following events ot experiences:

  • Recent loss—e.g. relationship break-up, death, termination from course, disconnection from family due to relocation, loss of job etc.
  • A sense of failure in studies
  • A sense of failure in romantic relationships
  • Family or relationship conflict
  • Sexual assault or child abuse
  • Violent or possessive partners.

When to be concerned

Take all suicide threats seriously.

Download Is someone you know considering suicide? [.pdf 44KB], which lists several tips on suicide prevention, including:

  • Possible warning signs
  • Triggers of suicide
  • How you can help
  • Myths about suicide
  • Where to get help.