Understanding mental distress

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Mental distress (also known as mental illness) is different for everyone. People can live with it and recovery does happen. 

Understanding mental distress

There are many ways to understand mental distress (also known as mental illness). Sometimes our beliefs stem from a person’s cultural or religious background but they can also be beliefs that have formed through our experiences.

Beliefs about mental distress are often associated with negative feelings such as fear, shame and sadness. Take a look at the beliefs below and think about your understanding of mental distress and how you can feel more positive and constructive.

Belief about the cause of mental distress

Unhelpful, negative feelings

Finding a more positive approach

It is a biological brain disease. 

It is irreversible and for life.

It makes the ill person seem different, unpredictable and even dangerous.

It is no-one’s fault because it’s a biological problem.


It's due to bad things happening to people. Some, especially parents or children, may feel responsible for bad things happening to the person.  People can recover and grow past these experiences. 
It's a wairua or spiritual problem. The person or the whānau may have brought it on. We can restore balance in our spiritual and social relationships.
It's because the person can't cope with life. Others may expect less of the person or look down on them. People can learn new coping skills.
It's because the person is lazy or manipulative.  It's the person's fault they are experiencing distress. Takes blame away from others.


People can live well with mental distress and recovery does happen 

People who experience mental distress state that having others believing in them is key to their recovery. The best things whānau, friends and acquaintances can do is hold hope for the person, trust them to make their own decisions and support them to be full contributing citizens. 

This means they have the ability and opportunity to live the lives they want. This doesn’t mean that someone won’t still experience some mental distress – they may, for example, continue to hear voices – but this doesn’t mean they can’t live well.

Whānau have a different experience to those in mental distress

Whānau and friends often experience complex and difficult feelings when a loved one experiences mental distress, for example, worry about the person’s future, anger that this has impacted on the whole whānau, shame to be associated with the person, and guilt that they may have helped to cause their distress or that they don’t know how to respond.

The person with distress on the other hand often carries another type of burden – feelings of loss of mana and status, loss of confidence, feeling they are a problem to others, and a sense of hopelessness. It’s important to understand these different experiences, how they interact and how they can cause tensions within the whānau. This is often the first step to achieving better mutual understanding and respect.