Warning signs your mental health may not be OK

Checking in on our own mental health is vital, especially in these turbulent times. Here’s how to spot the red flags in your emotional wellbeing – and what to do about them.

As AFL star Wayne Schwass punched the air while celebrating a premiership win with the Kangaroos in 1996, he appeared elated.

But while he was excelling on the field, Wayne was in an incredibly dark place. Three years earlier he’d been diagnosed with depression, which led to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“I spent 12 years hiding it and lying to everybody, bar four people,” says Wayne.

“I lived in paralysing fear every day. If I told people, I believed – incorrectly – that they would judge me, see me as weak. I’d lose respect, lose relationships, and most importantly I’d lose my career.”

With World Mental Health Week (October 10-18) being a timely reminder of the importance of mental wellness, Wayne and psychologist Sharon Draper pinpoint some of the signs that may indicate you’re under emotional stress.

Ignoring your emotions

Wayne says for a long time he was disconnected emotionally, and couldn’t even cry.

He now gives himself permission to experience – rather than try to deny or suppress – every emotion.

“I’ve recognised and come to appreciate that being connected to all of my emotions actually helps me deal with stressful situations in a more proactive, productive manner.”

Withdrawing from others

New research from eharmony, in conjunction with Wayne’s social enterprise, Puka Up, found 55 per cent of men feel the need to hide mental health issues from their partners.

And 56 per cent of the 2000 Australian men surveyed dealt with problems by taking time out on their own, rather than talking it out.

Wayne turns to his support network when something is wrong. He doesn’t expect them to solve the problem, but says just talking it through with at least one trusted person helps.

Not exercising

Exercise is a crucial part of staying mentally healthy, says Wayne. So if your runners are gathering dust, it’s often a sign you’re not looking after yourself physically or emotionally, he says.

“Any form of exercise has an impact on us physiologically,” he says. “Our body responds magnificently when we move it. So find what gives you enjoyment, find what you love and do it often.”

Wayne Schwass

Sleep issues

Psychologist Sharon Draper says sleep problems are one of the subtle cues that something’s up.

“Sometimes if you’re feeling dysregulated or overwhelmed you don’t sleep well, and then not sleeping well makes you not feel well. It’s a bit of a cycle,” she says.

Prioritising sleep and getting into good habits, such as not using your phone before bed, can help.

Feeling disconnected

Humans are social beings who need to feel a sense of belonging and connection, says Sharon.

“I find a lot of people don’t really know what it is they’re feeling – but if you’re feeling lonely or disconnected, of course that’s also another sign that something isn’t quite right,” she says.

But you can take action. “If you are in lockdown I’d encourage you to still have FaceTime or video calls, because you need to be able to see the person’s face and their eyes; that’s a very calming thing for our nervous system,” she says.

Over or under-indulging

Another warning sign? A change in the way you’re eating (or drinking).

“Drinking now and again is fine, having a piece of cake is fine – everything in moderation,” says Sharon.

“But if you notice you’re doing something more than you would normally, that’s also another subtle sign.”

Written by Larissa Ham