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Brain injury is a known risk factor for developing a mental illness, while some people with brain injury will have a pre-existing mental illness. Either way, dealing with both can cause additional

stress for the person and their family after a brain injury. Common forms of mental illness include depression, anxiety, and obsessive or compulsive behaviour.

Australian statistics show that around 42 per cent of people with brain injury will experience a mental illness.

Experiencing feelings of grief and loss are normal, and there might be sadness around the loss of pre-injury personality traits and strengths, or the levels of social support received after injury. However, ongoing and lasting despair and lack of motivation might be indicative of disorders such as depression. It is best to seek professional assessment by a doctor.

Diagnosing mental illness

To be diagnosed as a disorder, the condition needs to be of such severity that it interferes with a person’s day to day life, including their cognitive, emotional or social abilities. Some of the most common mental health disorders are:

  • clinical depression
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorder
  • social anxiety disorder
  • substance abuse disorder

Dual diagnosis

‘Dual diagnosis’ is a term used when someone is affected by two different conditions at one time. It can also be called co-morbidity, co-existing disorders or dual-disability.

The effects of brain injury and mental illness can often look similar, so misdiagnosis and other complications are possible. The mental illness may be affecting skills in memory, attention and planning – areas also commonly impacted by brain injury.

An undiagnosed or untreated mental illness can negatively impact the brain injury rehabilitation process by worsening mindset, low motivation and unhelpful coping mechanisms. Untreated, it can increase risks such as social isolation, family breakdown, unemployment, aggression and risk of exploitation.

Treatment and support

Dual-diagnosis situations require additional support

and a holistic approach, which may include medication, psychological therapy, and programs focusing on retraining social and living skills. It can be difficult to source treatments for both, as they can be confused, but help is available. One option is to seek the support of an advocate to resolve this lack of support for dual diagnosis situations.

It is appropriate to undergo assessment by a qualified specialist, such as a neuropsychologist or psychiatrist. This will help to outline supports and services in the community.

How can family help?

Signs that a mental illness may be developing following brain injury, include:

  • a gradual decline in ability to perform everyday tasks
  • decline in ability to cope with everyday stress
  • increased behavioural issues e.g. Anger, frustration, agitation
  • exaggeration of the effects of the acquired brain injury.

Seek advice from an appropriate professional or service for a suspected mental illness.