Mental Health: A new look at the sickie.

People in high stress industries could be more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed than others. Photo: Gabriele Charotte

Many West Australians were shocked to find out that one the state's most prominent politicians had experienced a breakdown; but what is a breakdown?

Dr Marny Lishman, a Perth-based health and community psychologist said the term "breakdown" was a very general one but in reality what it meant was that a person had become overwhelmed.

"There's only so much stress people can take," she said.

Dr Lishman said a breakdown manifested in different ways for different people so those who experienced a breakdown could behave very differently to one another.

She said for many it was about a number of "hassles" coming to a head, resulting in unhealthy behaviours.

"They might then switch off," Dr Lishman said.

"People could shut down and not engage, people might not want to take anything new on, they could retreat or get physically sick."

She said some people might turn to alcohol as a way of "coping" but said for some they would binge eat or not eat at all.

"It can play out in so many different forms, with whatever that person's poison is.

"Whatever coping skills they have, they will try, people could have addictive behaviours and turn to them."

Dr Lishman said people in high stress industries could be more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed than others.

"I'd say anyone in a job that has pressure [could be vulnerable], also as a politician you get judged and you are in the media, for most of us we only get judged by our friends and family, but politicians have thousands of people judging them," she said.

"It means your personal life can also be affected, politics would exacerbate that."

Dr Lishman said that while many people suffered anxiety or depression in the lead up to a breakdown, these factors did not always exist.

She said it could just be one, big, stressful event that was just too much for a person.

"Before a breakdown you might be able to see signs but some people with anxiety and depression still manage to show up at work and are good at putting a face on," Dr Lishman said.

If signs were visible she said they could include irritability, agitation, physical signs such as shaking or sweating or not wanting to take on new things.

Dr Lishman said the first step in recovery was realising that there was an issue.

"Acknowledging you are not doing too good and talking to someone and getting help from a professional."

Dr Lishman said it was important to "slow down" and "stopping and refocusing."

She said that while someone like Troy Buswell, who resigned from his ministry portfolios of treasury and transport after a breakdown, needed to take it a bit easier, it was important for them to keep some responsibilities - as he has done by remaining MP for Vasse.

"We all need purpose and to do things we are passionate about, it is no good sitting at home, we need to feel needed," Dr Lishman said.

She said while mental health issues should not affect people's future work prospects, unfortunately it often did in today's society.

"It wouldn't happen if someone had cancer, so it shouldn't happen if it is a mental illness," she said.

Dr Lishman said it was important to talk about mental health in order for people to understand and be more comfortable with the topic so it did not impact on people unfairly.

* Readers seeking support and further information can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.