Mental distress – what you need to know

Mental distress is a common experience. If you are experiencing mental distress, the most important thing to do is get support.

The stress and strain of restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic, reading upsetting news stories or experiencing severe weather events are just some of the things that can cause mental distress and take a toll on your wellbeing.

It’s important to seek help if you’re feeling distressed. Mental distress can sometimes be severe and ongoing and can develop into a diagnosable mental health condition so seeking help early is key. If you already have a diagnosed mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, distressing events can sometimes have an even bigger impact on your wellbeing.

Mental distress is common

Mental distress is common in Aotearoa NZ. One in five adults aged 15 years and over are diagnosed with a mood and/or anxiety disorder.

  • Mental distress is highest among young people (15 to 24-year-olds).
  • It’s more common for people to be aware of close friends having mental distress than those they live with, work with or their neighbours.
  • The proportion of New Zealanders with high levels of mental distress is trending upwards over time.
  • There’s a greater proportion of younger people in higher/more severe categories among anxiety and mental distress measures than older age groups (25 to 64-year-olds and 65+).
  • There’s a lower proportion of young people who report coping with everyday stresses, than older age groups.
  • 15 to 17-year-olds and 18 to 24-year-olds are more likely to report having long-term psychological conditions that affect their everyday activities and socialising than older age groups.

Find out more – Mental health in Aotearoa – results from the 2018 Mental Health Monitor and the 2018/19 NZ Health Survey Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2020

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What are the signs of mental distress?

When you experience mental distress, you can feel isolated, overwhelmed, worried, upset, unmotivated, have difficulty sleeping or find it hard to concentrate.

How often you’re feeling distressed, how bad it gets and how long it lasts can help determine the seriousness of your situation. Some common signs of distress include:

Changes in your sleep – You may be sleeping more than usual or have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Changes in weight/eating patterns – You may have lost or gained a significant amount of weight or be preoccupied with food, weight or body image.

Unexplained physical symptoms – Things like headaches, stomach problems, dizziness or chronic pain can sometimes be a sign of mental or emotional distress. A check-up by your GP can help work out the cause.

Difficulty controlling your emotions – Having trouble controlling your emotions, including anger, could be a sign you are stressed out and under the pump.

Obsessive/compulsive behaviours – Constant hand-washing for no logical reason or constantly worrying that something bad is going to happen can be a sign of distress.

Feeling tired all the time – Extreme tiredness and fatigue can occur when your body can’t handle an emotional overload and simply shuts down.

Memory problems – Forgetfulness can sometimes be a sign of distress. It can also be caused by other things like Alzheimer’s disease, a lack of sleep or hormonal changes due to menopause. A check-up by your GP can help determine the cause.

Not going out – Feeling like you don’t want to go out or socialise can be a sign of mental or emotional distress. Not enjoying sex can also be a sign – however, it pays to get a physical check-up to rule another cause out.

Getting help is key

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harm, call 111 straight away.

If you’re feeling distressed or are worried about how you’re feeling emotionally or physically, reach out to friends or whānau and contact your GP or other healthcare provider for advice.

Counselling – what is it?

(Happiful, UK, 2019)

(Asian Family Services, NZ, 2019)

You can also contact the organisations below for help or to find extra support:

  • Need to talk? (Free call or text 1737)
  • The Depression Helpline (0800 111 757)
  • Healthline (0800 611 116)
  • Lifeline (0800 543 354)
  • Samaritans (0800 726 666)
  • Youthline (0800 376 633, free text 234)
  • (for young people, free text 5626)
  • (for adults, free text 4202)


  1. Mental health in Aotearoa – results from the 2018 Mental Health Monitor and the 2018/19 NZ Health Survey Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2020
  2. 10 signs of an ailing mind WebMD, US, 2006
  3. Understanding mental distress Like Minds, NZ
  4. What are the causes and symptoms of emotional distress? Medical News Today, 2020
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.