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What’s the difference between a ‘bad day’ and genuine mental illness?

Sometimes a bad patch becomes something more serious without realising it. Here’s how to keep your mental health in check.

Part of living life is going through the natural ups and downs that both challenge and reward us. However, sometimes those challenging phases compound into a bad patch, which can become a longer-term illness if left unchecked.

It’s kind of like a hairline fracture in your ankle. If you keep walking and putting stress on it, it’s going to need more time, more work and more rehabilitation to get it back in a good place.

But how can we tell when a period of greyness is evolving into something that needs professional help?

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“There’s a checklist for you to consider, it’s based on how long this situation occurred,” explains psychologist Meredith Fuller. “Sometimes we feel a bit sad, or a bit lacking in motivation or we feel a bit down, but if it drags on for three weeks or more, that’s a red flag.”

She explains often ‘down periods’ are a reaction to an event. This could include the loss of a loved one or partner, or a job opportunity you’ve been working towards.

“There’s a period of time when you’re going to feel miserable, but if it lasts too long that’s when it needs to be looked at,” she says.

“When I say what is too long, it can be different for different people [and situations].”

Signs that how you’re feeling might be getting a bit long in the tooth include:

  • Loved ones are commenting or observing that you seem down
  • Your self-care starts to slip i.e. you’re not sleeping, don’t have an appetite, not keeping up good hygiene
  • It’s impacting you getting on with your usual life i.e. not wanting to see friends, withdrawing from work, not attending sports and other hobbies and commitments

“If it doesn’t lift so that you can get on with things and resume normal activities that gave you some joy or pleasure or your hobbies or seeing your friends, having a social life – that’s telling you something that needs to be addressed.”

That’s certainly not to say that you have to feel happy all the time even when things are bad. In fact, that’s its very own issue – toxic positivity. Think of those people who say that every cloud has a silver lining, even at the saddest points in life.

“You can take a positive view on life that doesn’t actually allow you to have any sadness or grief (that’s appropriate sadness or grief). So, you can have a situation where you’ve lost a partner or a good friend and say, ‘oh well tomorrow’s another day I’ll meet someone new’ but you don’t allow yourself to mourn.”

Striking the balance between toxic positivity and chronic mental health issues such as depression and anxiety isn’t always easy. We can feel obliged to feel happy even though we feel so sad.

“It’s called reaction formation, when there’s something that we’re really upset, not coping, distraught about, but we can’t acknowledge that to ourselves. So we almost go to the opposite area [overly positive] instead of being miserable and angry.”

The answer is to be honest with yourself about how you’re really feeling on the inside, and instead of denying it – actually working through it.

Don’t be afraid to sit in that pain and break it down – understand it – with someone you trust.

So, whether you’ve noticed a bad patch is extending for a long period of time or whether you realise that your positivity might be covering up some underlying sadness – the key ingredient to work through these issues is to talk about it with a professional.

“One of the things I think is important is, if you’re asking yourself the question, should I be feeling this terrible feeling and exhausted and immobilised and crying or whatever – get support.”

“Go to see a psychologist, talk to a trusted family member or friend and just get that perspective. Sometimes we can get lost in our own dark spots that we can’t really look at it objectively,” Fuller explains.

She adds that sometimes the simplest of sentences, in the presence of friends and family can lead to a more open conversation about these kinds of topics.

“One of the best things we can do is to actually be able to say, ‘I’m worried that I’m getting into some kind of spiral of depression because I’m feeling these things. And I’m just wondering, you know me so well. What have you been noticing?’ And, you know, you can start a dialogue about it.”

While talking therapy is so important to working through mental health issues, the other physiological side to our wellbeing also needs to be looked after.

If you think you might be slipping into a bad patch, try to be gentle with yourself while also squeezing in some light exercise, trying to feed your body with nutritious foods, and getting good quality sleep.

“It’s about caring for ourselves on every level and getting good discipline going, because that’s the thing that will keep you going.”

“Gently, gently, slowly, slowly, you’ll suddenly find yourself laughing again.”

In an emergency please call 000

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24- hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.