What is mental health?

2 October 2019
October is Mental Health Month so we spoke to Dr Alyssa Milton from the Brain and Mind Centre to help unravel this very important topic.

Mental health in Australia

Next time you are in a big crowd of people, take a look around at the sea of faces and think about the statistics relating to mental ill health in Australia.

It's estimated that 1 in 5 (20 percent) of Australians aged 16 to 85 have experienced a common mental disorder in the last 12 months. To say the least, this is a lot of people; it’s just shy of four million Australians based on 2017 population estimates.

It could be argued that most of us are touched by mental ill health at some point in our lives, whether it be our own personal experience or the experience of somebody close to us; a friend, a relative, a colleague. Read about new mental health research from the University of Sydney.

Without mental health there can be no true physical health.
World Health Organisation (WHO)

What's the definition of mental health?

There have been many incremental shifts in the public’s mental health awareness since 1954, when the World Health Organization (WHO) championed the idea that "without mental health there can be no true physical health". However, the term “mental health” still often brings to mind conditions such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

And you can see why, when anxiety disorders are estimated to impact 14.4 precent of Australians, followed by affective disorders such as depression which impact 6.2 percent of Aussies in a year.

However, WHO stresses that mental health is not simply an absence of a mental ill health but is "... a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."

To be able to do this, self-management is an important process.

What is self-management?

The idea of coping with stressors and feeling socially connected, highlighted by WHO, are important elements of managing mental health. 

Some of my research at the Brain and Mind Centre looks at how self-management interventions can support people to manage their mental health, which can focus on physical, social and emotional parts of keeping well. 

Self-management commonly includes:

  • learning to anticipate and respond to signs of mental ill health (which can include using support networks in ways that help).
  • developing skills to manage symptoms and other difficulties
  • psycho-education
  • a recovery-focused element, such as setting personal goals based on hopes for recovery
  • it's also important to know that self-management is more effective when it is done with the support other people. Some of my recent research in collaboration with UCL, which was published in the Lancet last year, found that when a self-management intervention was facilitated by a peer support worker (a person who uses their own lived experience of mental ill health purposefully in their job to support others) after someone was discharged from crisis care, it reduced readmission rates to crisis care and hospital significantly compared to self-management alone.

Dr Alyssa Milton is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow from the Brain and Mind Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health 

Our mental health research

The University's multidisciplinary approach to research means that we can explore mental health from a number of angles. From new online platforms, to patient-centred therapies, find out how our research can help you and those you care about.

Online research hub for mental health

In order to continue research activity with the disruption of COVID-19, the Brain and Mind Centre’s Youth Mental Health and Technology Team have put together an online research hub for young people to continue to have their voice in the development of innovative health information technologies to promote mental health and wellbeing. From quick polls, surveys, idea walls and interactive maps, you can contribute as much or as little as you like.

Find out more

Not just an app

New technology can support the coordination of highly-personalised mental health care across primary, secondary, and hospital-level clinics.

Read more about Best Care, First Time

Young and the Restless webinar

Listen to the Brain and Mind Centre webinar hosted by and featuring a panel of young people with lived experience, discussing suicide prevention and mental health advocacy of people who have been through the system.

Find out more about the discussion

Your mental health checklist

Even everyday tasks can be overwhelming when you're not mentally healthy. We've suggested a few ways you can check in with yourself and improve mental health.

Make mental health a priority

Alcohol use and anxiety

Our researchers are developing an online tool to help tackle the connection between alcohol use and anxiety in young people.

Help young people lead healthier lives

Mental health support for people living with disability

Our research focuses on listening first and foremost in order to develop high-quality evidence which accurately reflects real-life experiences. 

Help people with disabilities live well

Jess's story through bipolar and anxiety

Maintaining a routine was a huge step for Jess, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety. After being treated at the Brain and Mind Centre, Jess is gaining more independence in her life.

Read more about Jess's personal story


COVID-19 has brought digihealth a major focus of mental health service delivery. Read about our recent work in digihealth and catch up on some of our webinars.

Find out more
Dr Alyssa Milton
Post Doctoral Researcher
Psychologist and mental health researcher from the Brain and Mind Centre

Facts & figures

Mental health stats

  • 1 in 5 Australians have experienced a mental disorder in the last 12 months
  • 14% Of Australians live with an anxiety disorder
  • 6% Of Australians live with depression
  • 4.2 million Australians received mental health related prescriptions in 2017-18
  • $9.1 billion Was spent on mental health in Australia in 2016-17