- Attitudes towards mental health
- What is ‘good’ mental health?
- What are some signs that your mental health might be struggling?
- Common mental health conditions
- Risk factors for mental health conditions
- The impact of mental health conditions on everyday life
- What mental health support is available?
- Additional helpful resources
The term ‘mental health’ can be hard to define because it includes such a broad range of complex human processes, feelings, and behaviours. But, the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes it as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
WHO’s constitution also acknowledges mental health as a key component of overall health. It says, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Once, we understand this, it can be easier to see how our mental health can affect how we think, feel, act, earn a living, and enjoy life. But, sadly, many of us who’re struggling with mental health issues feel ashamed or embarrassed to reach out for help, due to fear of being judged – either at work, among friends or family, or both.
For this reason, people can become good at hiding their mental health issues or dismissing them entirely. Take for example the late actor Robin Williams, (Good Will Hunting, Mrs Doubtfire). For those that knew his career, he was known as a bubbly character – someone that made us laugh. Yet he struggled with depression and this, according to some reports, caused him to take his own life.
While changing widespread attitudes about anything takes time, we can start by reconsidering our own beliefs about mental health. For example, some people believe that conditions like depression and anxiety are things we can simply snap out of – but this can trivialise them and promote the idea that we should be able to cope alone.
One example of a way to challenge and change these beliefs could be to take some time to read more about what depression and anxiety are and how they can be treated. Sometimes, even just the act of making time for this can help us start making our mental health a priority – rather than ignoring it and brushing it under the rug.
To further explore how we can challenge mental health stigma, let’s take a closer look at attitudes to mental health, what mental health is, and where to turn for support.
Attitudes towards mental health
Research shows that awareness of mental health and wellbeing has grown but there are still varying levels of acceptance of those with mental health issues, with prejudice still being a widespread issue. For example, only 36% of people said that they would be comfortable with a person showing signs of depression marrying into their family.
So, where has this stigma come from?
Stigma generally arises from a lack of awareness and understanding of mental health issues, or because people have developed negative attitudes and beliefs towards it. This is often due to upbringing or media influences.
Cultural and family influences
Culture and family life can play a role in negative attitudes to mental health. In many cultures and families, mental health issues are seen as weaknesses and may be hidden to avoid being alienated or discriminated against. This can make reaching out for help feel difficult, if not impossible.
How mental illness is reported and framed in the media is also an important influence on how the public sees mental illness.
There have been plenty of horror movies about ‘psycho’ killers escaping from mental institutions – and media accounts have often focused on individuals with mental health issues, rather than portraying mental health as a wider societal issue.
Though thankfully, times seem to be changing, and in recent years, the media have started to portray people with mental health problems in a more non-judgmental and positive way.
Films such as A Beautiful Mind, Black Swan, Good Will Hunting, and Silver Linings Playbook; and TV shows like Coronation Street, EastEnders, Holby City, Homeland and Orange is the New Black, have all contributed to this by including a wide range of mental illness in their storylines. This has helped to increase understanding of mental illness, and minimise fear and prejudice amongst the wider population.
In 2021, the government also funded England’s biggest campaign, Time to change, to end the discrimination and stigma of mental illness. The campaign was led by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
The more the mental health sector can work with the media to raise awareness of the realities of living with mental illness and signpost where people can seek help, the more the general population will have a greater understanding of what those with mental illness go through on a daily basis.
This, together with using accurate terms and respectful language, will hopefully help remove the stigma. It’s better to educate than to alienate the wider community, and the media can play a significant role in this.
What is ‘good’ mental health?
- Feel, express, and manage a range of positive and negative emotions.
- Form and maintain healthy relationships with others.
- Get involved in activities that you enjoy.
- Look after yourself and carry out everyday tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, work, sleep, and exercise.
What are some signs that your mental health might be suffering?
- Feeling low, irritable, tearful, numb, or worthless.
- Disruption to your sleep, including sleeping more or less than is normal for you.
- Changes in appetite – for example, eating more or less than you usually do.
- Not wanting to spend time around your friends or family.
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts about self-harm.
Common mental health conditions
The symptoms above can be a precursor to or a warning sign of a mental health condition – and some of the most common mental health conditions are…
These can include:
- Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – is a mental health condition whereby the person worries about their appearance. It affects both men and women.
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – having regular or uncontrollable worries about many different things in your everyday life. It can also be a lifelong condition.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – has two main parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are doubts, images, worries, and unwelcome thoughts that constantly appear in your mind. Compulsions are repetitive actions that you do to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession. For example, hand washing that goes beyond the normal amount a person washes their hands a day and results in sore bleeding hands.
- Health anxiety – is part of the OCD spectrum. A person who’s suffering from health anxiety will fixate on the fear of getting any type of illness.
- Panic disorder – having regular or frequent panic attacks without there being an obvious cause or trigger. This in itself can trigger another panic attack.
- Phobias – extreme fears. A person can be afraid of flying but will still manage to go to the airport and board the plane. A person who has a phobia about flying can, in some instances, panic when a plane flies overhead or even the thought of flying will make them panic.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – following a traumatic experience, such as witnessing or being involved in, a serious accident. Those with PTSD experience flashbacks or nightmares, which can feel like they’re experiencing the event all over again. PTSD doesn’t always appear immediately after the traumatic event but can occur anywhere from weeks to years later.
- Social anxiety disorder – extreme fear or anxiety that’s triggered by social situations.
- Bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) — affects a person’s mood and they can swing from extreme highs to extreme lows and may experience psychotic symptoms during manic or depressive episodes. Cyclothymic disorder is another disorder that’s similar to bipolar disorder but the highs and lows are less extreme.
- Substance-induced mood disorder ― a type of depression that is caused by using alcohol, drugs, or medications. People take substances like alcohol to achieve a high, but when the high dissipates, they crash. To overcome the crash they’ll take more of the substance and so the cycle continues. Often they don’t realise it’s the substance that is causing the crash.
- Clinical depression – prolonged and persistent periods of extreme sadness affecting how you behave, feel, and think. People with clinical depression may struggle with daily activities and think about death and dying. In some instances, they may plan to end their life.
- Other forms of depression can include depression related to medical illness, dysthymia (PDD), and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
- Schizophrenia (formerly referred to as paranoid schizophrenia) – the most common form of schizophrenia. It often develops later in life than other types. Symptoms include hallucinations or delusions, withdrawing from everyday life, and taking no interest in social interactions.
- Hebephrenic schizophrenia (also known as disorganised schizophrenia) – typically develops when you’re around 15-25 years old. Symptoms include problems with routine tasks, disorganised speech patterns resulting in others having difficulty understanding you, and short-lasting delusions and hallucinations. People with disorganised schizophrenia frequently show little or no emotions in their facial expressions, mannerisms, or tone of voice.
- Other forms of schizophrenia include catatonic schizophrenia, undifferentiated schizophrenia, residual schizophrenia, simple schizophrenia, cenesthopathic schizophrenia and unspecified schizophrenia. You can read more about these on the Mental Health UK website.
Risk factors for mental health conditions
It’s important to first mention that anyone can struggle with mental health issues at any time. However, there are a few factors that can make this more likely.
Community and environmental factors
In some local communities, there can be problems with prejudice, discrimination, violence and crime, which can all have a negative impact on an individual’s sense of well-being.
Even the weather can have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. An example of this is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
How people experience their school years can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health, not just at school, but long term. For example, the effects of being bullied (such as issues with self-esteem) can last decades after a person leaves school.
In some families, there’s a history of psychiatric disorders and this can be inherited.
In other cases, there could be violence and or neglect, which can impact those involved physically and mentally. Divorce and family breakdown can also increase the risk of mental illness.
Traumatic life events can have lasting effects on a person and may cause mental illness. These can include abuse, bereavement, homelessness, illness, and unemployment.
Positive life events such as getting married, moving home, or having children can also be stressful and impact a person’s wellbeing. Postnatal depression is an example of this and this can affect both men and women.
Factors that are specific to the individual
Everyone – whether they’re struggling with mental health issues or not – has their own areas of vulnerability. However, a person that doesn’t have healthy coping mechanisms in place may also have an increased risk of developing a mental health condition.
The impact of mental health conditions on everyday life
One of the main reasons why it’s important not to suffer in silence if you’re struggling with a mental health issue is because it can have a debilitating effect on daily life.
For example, it can affect…
When your mental health is suffering, it can become increasingly difficult to cope with daily activities such as getting up and dressed, maintaining your personal hygiene, preparing meals and eating, and caring for your home and/or children.
Some people who’re struggling with their mental health turn to emotional eating. This is something we all do from time to time, but for someone with mental health issues, it can become difficult to control. This can lead to other health problems such as diabetes and heart disease – especially if the type of food being eaten is high in fat, sugar, and/or salt.
For others, the opposite can happen and they may lose their appetite or even stop eating altogether, causing them to lose weight and become undernourished.
It’s not unusual for children and young people who’re living with mental health issues to socially isolate themselves and struggle with concentration. This can affect their access to educational opportunities and their inclusion and success in education.
An individual’s mental state can affect their physical health. For example, anxiety can make your blood pressure temporarily rise.
Poor mental health can also lead to stomach problems. Some people experience a feeling of unease in their stomachs at times of stress, which can disturb the delicate balance of digestion.
In some cases, stress and anxiety will slow down digestion leading to bloating, pain, and constipation. Other times, it may speed up digestion causing diarrhoea and frequent visits to the bathroom.
People who’re struggling with mental health issues can have problems forming and maintaining relationships with family, friends, and/or work colleagues.
In romantic relationships, there may be difficulties with commitment and/or intimacy.
Having a mental health problem can cause those that are suffering to feel inferior and develop a negative self-image of themselves, including feelings of self-hate, anger, disgust and uselessness.
This can lead to depression, eating disorders, and/or psychosocial disorders.
What mental health support is available?
Understanding and acknowledging that mental health is real and important is often the first step to getting the support you need – as is being honest with yourself about how you’re feeling.
Following that, support and treatment for mental health problems include…
Talking therapies involve talking to a trained professional about your behaviour, feelings and thoughts. Talking therapies can also be referred to as counselling, psychological therapy, psychotherapy, talking treatment, and therapy.
There are different types of talking therapies, including:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – helps you manage your problems by changing the way you behave and think.
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) – is a version of CBT that can help those that experience emotions very strongly. It teaches you how to cope with stress, live in the moment, improve your relationships, and regulate your emotions.
- Humanistic therapy – allows you to explore your whole self rather than label yourself based on specific characteristics or issues. The aim of it is to help you grow, live your life to the fullest, and be true to yourself.
- Psychodynamic therapy – explores how experiences in your past and your unconscious mind influence your behaviour, current thoughts, feelings and relationships.
You can be referred for NHS talking therapies by a GP or you can make a referral yourself. Or, you might prefer to see a private therapist. The Mind website has plenty of helpful information on finding a therapist, which you can access here.
There are many ways that you can help yourself manage your mental health.
These can include…
- Finding ways to cope with stress, for example, by practising mindfulness. Taking some time for yourself is another, as is avoiding unhealthy habits, like being reliant on alcohol.
- Eating the right foods can provide you with more energy, improve your mood, and help you think more clearly. Examples of healthy foods that are particularly good for your mind are fatty fish, oats, and bananas. You can read more about these in our list of 9 mood-boosting foods.
- Getting regular exercise can help you maintain or improve your mental health. You don’t have to run a marathon – you can dance around the house and housework is also good exercise. A government study also shows that going for a walk in woodlands is good for our mental health.
- Taking up a hobby has been linked to lower levels of depression and, in some cases, can prevent it. A hobby might be gardening, doing jigsaw puzzles, or practising photography.
- Journaling is a simple way of helping you improve your mental health by reducing your anxiety. It can also boost your memory and comprehension which helps to keep your brain active.
- Listening to music can cause our brains to release dopamine (a feel-good chemical). This in turn helps the listener to a feel-good state of mind. Other ways that music can benefit you are by improving your quality of sleep and helping you eat a healthier diet.
- Getting enough good quality sleep is important for good mental health. Ways you can improve your sleep include having a regular routine and to switch off your electronic devices 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Volunteering has been shown to improve confidence and self-esteem and provide learning opportunities. You might want to check out our volunteering section which offers volunteering advice, opportunities, and articles including; 10 volunteering opportunities for over 50s.
- Unplugging from technology – unplugging yourself from social media and your phone every now and then can improve your mental health by giving you some respite. This also applies to using your computer or watching TV.
- Antidepressants are one of the best known and are used to treat moderate or severe depression. They may also be prescribed to treat anxiety, eating problems and OCD.
- Antipsychotics are often used to treat the symptoms of an acute schizophrenic episode.
- Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers may be prescribed for severe anxiety or insomnia.
- Lithium and other mood stabilising drugs may be used to treat bipolar disorder, severe depression, mania and hypomania, and schizoaffective disorder.
Seeking support from friends and family, if possible
It’s known that humans thrive better when socialising and that socialising is good for both your mental and physical health. However, it’s common for people who’re struggling with their mental health to isolate themselves from family and friends – with reaching out for help and support not feeling like an option.
Deciding you want to reach out to your family and or friends for support can feel daunting and you may wonder if you’re doing the right thing. But try to remember that, often, people can’t help us unless we let them know we’re struggling.
In some cases, friends and family may be waiting to help you but are leaving the ball in your court – hoping you’ll ask for support when you’re ready. While, in other cases, they might not understand or realise what you’re going through or what you need, so you might have to guide them.
This means telling them how you’re feeling and what you need (if you know). Sometimes all the support we need is to have someone listen to us and believe what we’re going through. They might also have suggestions as to what to do next.
If you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to family and friends for support, you might want to consider seeking in-person or online groups that can offer support. Mind has an online community called Side by Side. They also have a page dedicated to finding peer support.
What to do if you’re a friend or relative of someone who’s struggling
If you’re a friend or relative of someone who’s struggling with their mental health and you want to help, there are resources out there that can offer guidance. Mind has a good section about how to help someone seeking mental health support. The NHS and Turning Point also offer support and guidance for friends and families.
If you’re supporting someone with mental health issues, it’s important to remember to take care of your own health too, both mentally and physically. There’s a good guide here from SAMH, Scotland’s mental health charity, that provides information about how to cope when supporting someone else. Rethink Mental Illness also has a page about supporting those with mental health issues that includes a section about looking after yourself.
Thanks to the push to raise awareness of mental illness over the past few years, the stigma is slowly being challenged and social attitudes are changing. People are becoming more accepting of mental illness and see it as a difference someone has rather than a negative quality.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, then we hope this article shows that there can be some light at the end of the tunnel – and that reaching out for help is always better than struggling in silence.
And in case you need to hear it today, please remember – as A.A. Milne once wrote – that “you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
Additional helpful resources
- Bipolar UK – a charity dedicated to helping people living with manic depression or bipolar disorder.
- Campaign Against Living Miserably – a charity taking a stand against suicide with a helpline from 5pm-midnight 365 days a year.
- Cruse Bereavement Care – help and support for people experiencing feelings of grief or loss.
- Mental Health Foundation – information and support for anyone living with mental health issues or learning disabilities.
- Mind – a charity that promotes better mental health, and offers information and support on things like depression and anxiety.
- Men’s Health Forum – a 24/7 text, email and chat service for men who are going through stress.
- National Suicide Prevention Alliance – an alliance of public, private, voluntary and community organisations in England who care about suicide prevention and are willing to take action to reduce suicide and support those affected by suicide.
- No Panic – a charity offering support to people, who experience panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including a course where you can learn coping mechanisms.
- Rethink Mental Illness – a charity whose aim is to meet each person’s individual needs and make sure everyone living with a mental illness is treated with dignity and respect.
- Samaritans – confidential support for people experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety or despair.
- Silver Line – a charity providing information, friendship and advice to older people.