Mental illness

Certain mental illnesses are associated to some degree with suicidal behaviour. While it is not possible to explain suicide as having a simplistic one to one relationship with mental illness, mental illness is nevertheless a significant risk factor for suicide.

The term 'mental illness' describes a group of illnesses where people may show irrational behaviour, disturbed mood, poor judgement, abnormal perceptions or thoughts, disturbed emotions and ability to relate to others, and inability to cope with life events. The severity of mental illness may range from being brief or episodic, to being persistent and disabling.


The following statistics are based on the findings from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB), a nationally-representative household survey of 8,841 individuals aged between 16 and 85 years.

  • 45.5% of Australians will experience a mental or substance use disorder at some time in their life.
  • One in five Australians will experience a mental or substance use disorder in any 12 month period.
  • Anxiety disorders (14.4%) are the most common class of mental illness followed by affective (depressive) disorders (6.2%) and substance use disorders (5.1%).
  • Only 35% of people with a mental or substance use disorder used health services for their problem.
  • 13% of those surveyed experienced suicidal ideation at some stage in their lives, while over 4% had made a suicide plan and more than 3% had made a suicide attempt.

Brief facts

Here are some facts about the relationship between mental illness and suicidal behaviour (from LIFE Fact Sheet 7)

  • The strongest links (between mental illness and suicidal ideation) are with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcohol or other drug abuse, borderline personality disorder, and behavioural disorders in children and adolescents (e.g. conduct, oppositional).
  • Suicide is a more common cause of death among people with schizophrenia and mood disorders than the general population, and the risk for suicidal behaviour is more marked if the person has more than one mental illness.
  • People with mental illness are at particular risk of suicide immediately following discharge from psychiatric in-patient care or emergency departments, especially if the person has previously been suicidal or was an involuntary admission and where they live alone or are exposed to work stresses. To assist these people post-discharge, it is therefore important to provide thorough treatment of the circumstances that led to the admission, management of work and other stresses, improved follow-up and ongoing assessment of suicide risk.
  • People diagnosed with depression may in the early phases of recovery be at increased risk of acting upon their suicidal ideas due to a delayed response to treatment. It is therefore important to educate individuals, family and carers about this and how to minimise the risk until the patient’s mood recovers and the suicidal ideas abate.

For additional information and resources, try the following:

  • Conduct a library search using the keywords 'mental illness'
  • View the profiles of National Suicide Prevention Strategy Mental Health programs
  • Read LIFE News issue 6: mental health
  • Go to LIFE's links page


Key organisations

The following are some organisations involved in research and service delivery within the mental health sector.

The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health 
The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (ACPMH) at the University of Melbourne undertakes world class trauma related research, policy advice, service development and education.

beyondblue is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related substance misuse disorders in Australia.

headspace is Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation.  The organisation aims to deliver improvements in the mental health, social wellbeing and economic participation of young Australian’s aged 12-25. headspace funds centres across the country that help young people access local service providers.  These centres focus on integrated service response for young people.

depressioNET provides online resources to locate help, healthcare professionals and information about causes, symptoms and various treatment options for managing depression.

Lifeline offers access to a range of national and local services that support mental health, wellbeing, help seeking and suicide prevention.

Mental Health & well being
Mental health & well being provides information on the Australian Government’s role and contributions to mental health reform activities in Australia.

Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid is a 12-hour course developed in 2000 by Betty Kitchener and Professor Tony Jorm with the aim to improve the mental health literacy of members of the Australian community. 

Mental Health Council of Australia
Mental Health Council of Australia provides access to information and resources for the Australian mental health sector.

SANE Helpline
SANE Helpline offers information and advice 9-5 weekdays EST on 1800 18 7263 (SANE). Request free InfoPack 24 hours. 

The Black Dog Institute
Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit, educational, research, clinical and community-oriented facility offering specialist expertise in depression and bipolar disorder.