Mental health problems – an introduction

Explains what mental health problems are, what may cause them, and the many different kinds of help, treatment and support that are available. Also provides guidance on where to find more information, and tips for friends and family.

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What are mental health problems?

In many ways, mental health is just like physical health: everybody has it and we need to take care of it.

Good mental health means being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. But if you go through a period of poor mental health you might find the ways you're frequently thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with. This can feel just as bad as a physical illness, or even worse.

Mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year. They range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

I now know that if I felt there was something wrong, it's because there was, but I didn't understand mental health fully... it's a spectrum and you should feel able to decide where and when you [are] on that spectrum.

Could I be ‘going mad’?

Experiencing a mental health problem is often upsetting, confusing and frightening – particularly at first. If you become unwell, you may feel that it's a sign of weakness, or that you are 'losing your mind'.

These fears are often reinforced by the negative (and often unrealistic) way that people experiencing mental health problems are shown on TV, in films and by the media. This may stop you from talking about your problems, or seeking help. This, in turn, is likely to increase your distress and sense of isolation.

However, in reality, mental health problems are a common human experience. Most people know someone who has experienced a mental health problem. They can happen to all kinds of people from all walks of life. And it's likely that, when you find a combination of self-caretreatment and support that works for you, you will get better.

It wasn't until I had a breakdown that I felt my condition was 'serious enough' to qualify as an issue. I could have got help much earlier but I didn't because of this – it's never too early to seek advice.

Different perspectives on mental health and mental illness

There are various different approaches to mental health and mental illness around the world. Most health professionals in the UK agree on a similar set of clinical diagnoses and treatments for mental health problems. We have chosen to reflect this approach in our information, as these are the terms and treatment models that you are most likely to come across if you seek help in the UK.

However, you might not always find it helpful to think about your mental health in this way. Depending on the traditions and beliefs of the culture you grew up in you might express your emotions differently, and have different ideas about how best to cope. In many cultures, emotional wellbeing is closely associated with religious or spiritual life. And you may have complicated feelings about diagnosis, as your difficult experiences may be just one part of how you understand your identity overall. 

We choose to use the phrase 'mental health problems', as many people have told us this language feels most helpful for them. But words can have different meanings for different people. You might be more familiar with terms such as 'poor emotional health', 'overloaded', 'burnt out' or 'overwhelmed' to describe mental health problems. Or you may feel that terms such as 'mental illness' or 'issues' describe your experiences better, or are easier to explain to other people in your life.

However you understand your own experiences, and whatever terms you prefer to use, we hope that you will find the information in these pages useful when considering different options for care and support.


This information was published in October 2017 – to be revised in 2020. 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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