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Understanding mental health – for young people

Information for young people on understanding mental health, and mental health problems.

This page is also available in Welsh.

What is mental health?

Mental health is about how we think, feel and act. Just like physical health: everybody has it and we need to take care of it.

Our mental health is on a spectrum, and can range from good to poor.

Good mental health can help you to think positively, feel confident and act calmly.

If you have poor mental health, you might find that the way you're thinking, feeling or acting becomes difficult to cope with. You might not enjoy things you used to like doing. You might feel sad or angry for a longer time than usual. Or you might feel like you can’t control how you feel or behave.

This page has information on:

"Mental health is on a spectrum – we can be ill and struggling and well and functioning. It constantly changes which can be exhausting, but it’s also a reminder that things will change for the better again."

How can I look after my mental health?

Looking after your mental health can help you to feel good. It can also help stop some mental health problems from developing, control the effects they have, and stop them from getting worse.

Here's some ways you can look after your mental health:

  • Take care of your wellbeing. See our page on wellbeing for tips on how you can do this.
  • Practice self-care. Self-care means ways of looking after yourself which help your mental health. This includes recognising what does and doesn't make you feel good. It also includes seeing your friends, and looking after your physical health. See Anna Freud’s page on self-care for more ideas to try.
  • Find ways to boost your confidence, so you feel good about yourself. See our page on confidence and self-esteem for more information.
  • Ask for help or support when you need it. See our page on finding support to find out about the different types of support available to you. Or you could read about how to talk to a doctor.

What are mental health problems?

A mental health problem is when the way you're thinking, feeling or acting becomes difficult for you to cope with.

We can all feel sad, worried, angry or fed up at times – like nerves before an exam or feeling down when a friend moves away. But if these feelings last a long time, like if you always feel low or can’t sleep, it might be a sign that you need more help. For example, if the way you feel:

  • affects you most days
  • stops you from doing the things you enjoy
  • makes you feel like you can't cope anymore.

Mental health problems are very common. They are not a sign of weakness and can happen to anyone. People can experience mental health problems differently, too.

Other terms you may hear, or prefer to use instead of 'mental health problem', include:

  • ‘poor emotional health’
  • ‘overwhelmed’
  • ‘mental illness’
  • ‘mental ill-health’
  • ‘emotional difficulties’.

There are many different types of mental health problems and they all have their own names, like depression and schizophrenia.

There are also experiences that can be a part of a mental health problem or happen on their own, like anger or delusions.

To find out more, see our page on types of mental health problems.

"Struggling with your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of."

What causes mental health problems?

There are lots of things that might cause mental health problems. Sometimes it might be a few different things that have built up, like:

  • problems at home, school or in relationships
  • big changes in your life
  • being discriminated against because of your sexuality or beliefs
  • pressure from yourself or others to achieve
  • feeling lonely or like no-one understands you
  • being bullied
  • being abused
  • feeling low in confidence
  • losing someone close to you
  • stressful things that have happened to you
  • worrying about what's happening in the world, like things you hear about in the news.

It may be something not on this list, or you might not know what the cause is. 

In some cultures, mental health is closely associated with religious or spiritual life. In others, it isn’t considered separate from physical health at all. This may give people different understandings of mental health problems and their causes.

Do mental health problems run in families?

Some research suggests that some mental health problems might run in families. But we don’t know for sure.

It may be because of our genes, our ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that we may learn from our parents, or the environment we grow up in.

There are also many people with a mental health problem who don’t have family with the same condition.

What treatments and support are there?

There are lots of different types of treatment and support for mental health problems, like:

Talking therapies – where you talk through your thoughts, feelings and experiences with a trained professional. For example, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Medication – prescribed by your doctor to help manage your feelings. Visit YoungMinds’ information on medication to find out more.

Creative therapies – this can be using arts (music, drawing, painting, dancing, drama) or playing games to express your thoughts and feelings. You do this with a trained therapist in a safe environment. It can also mean doing creative activities to improve your wellbeing and confidence.

Peer support – local or online groups that meet to discuss their experiences around mental health and wellbeing. It can be very helpful as some problems are better understood with other people.

You may need to try a few different things until you find what works for you.

"My GP helped me understand what an anxiety disorder is... They eventually referred me to a therapist where I began to understand my own personal experience of mental health in more depth."

Where can I access treatment and support?

You can access treatment and support for your mental health in lots of different places, like:

  • school or college
  • work
  • your home
  • hospital
  • doctors surgery
  • Local Minds

or somewhere else in the community.

You can find out more on our finding support page.

Do mental health problems make someone dangerous?

Most mental health problems have no link to dangerous or violent behaviour. This idea is often supported by the negative and unrealistic way that people with mental health problems are shown on TV, in films and by the media.

But, things are changing for the better. You can help challenge misconceptions about mental health problems by sharing reliable information. You can also get involved in campaigns, such as those ran by YoungMinds.

Can I live well with a mental health problem?

It’s true that mental health problems can affect parts of your life.

But, you can manage your symptoms by trying to spot what makes your mental health worse, like stress or not enough sleep, and taking steps to change these things.

You can also do things you know make your mental health better or more stable. For example, meeting up with a friend or playing sport.

By taking steps to look after yourself, you can still lead a happy and fulfilled life.

"Although I sometimes feel upset that my life has been impacted by living with a mental health problem, it has made me who I am."

Can I get better from a mental health problem?

It's possible to get better from a mental health problem, and lots of people do.

Your symptoms might return from time to time, but when you’ve found the right combination of self-care, treatment and support that works for you, it’s likely you’ll be able to manage them better.

It’s important to remember that getting better is a journey. It will also mean different things to different people.

< Back to our introduction to mental health hub

Go to our main info hub for young people >

This information was published in June 2020. We will revise it in 2022.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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