Mental Health

Your guide to mental health

What is mental health?

There are numerous definitions of mental health, most of which refer to mental well-being as distinct from physical health. It can be good or bad, just like physical health, of course. According to the World Health Organisation, it means someone will have the ability to function and cope with the normal stresses of life, meaning that they can work productively and fruitfully as well as having the capacity to make a contribution to his or her community. Not all clinicians would agree with this rather wide definition, however, especially given that some people who suffer from chronic mental conditions are able to function quite normally in society even though they may be suffering behind the scenes. Nevertheless, people who are in good health, mentally speaking, do tend to have more autonomy over their lives and are more in control of their emotive states and moods.

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Are mental health issues increasing? 

Yes, they are. The World Health Organisation stated in 2017 that the previous decade saw an increase in reported poor mental health. However, it lumped the figure of a 13 per cent upturn with substance abuse disorders – a related, though separate issue. According to Mind, the British charity that specialises in mental disorders and support, between 1993 and 2014, common mental disorders increased by 20 per cent. Consequently, any way you look at it, such problems are more commonplace than they used to be. The reason for this is not proven beyond doubt, although it seems that increased awareness among clinicians and the public at large will account for why so many more diagnoses are made today than used to be the case. The idea that people today may be more sensitive or have less resilience than previous generations may well be overstated from that point of view, therefore.

Is mental health the same as mental illness?

No, it is not. The term health with regards to mental well-being should be used in just the same way that it is applied in terms of physical health. In other words, people can be either healthy or unhealthy from a bodily perspective. The same goes for their mental state. That said, a poor mental state does not mean that one has a mental illness. Sometimes, moods can affect how we feel, or certain situations might make us feel anxious or upset. This is perfectly normal and not to be confused with mental illness. People with mental conditions are more likely to suffer much more dramatic effects from external stimuli and will sometimes feel very ill or out of control for no good reason at all. Maintaining good mental health can help to keep mental conditions at bay or, at least, stave off their worst symptoms. However, this is by no means universal, and mentally ill people tend to need very tailored treatments.

Can mental health conditions be hereditary?

Yes, they can. However, it would be a mistake to think of mental conditions as all running in the family. Some are found to occur after someone has suffered a particularly stressful incident, for example. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would fall into this category, for instance. Equally, some people find they become depressed after exposure to certain drugs or other substances. That said, many mental disorders are known to have a genetic trait that means some people will always be more susceptible to them. Psychiatric disorders that are known to occur more frequently in a hereditary way include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, certain types of autism spectrum disorder, chronic depression and schizophrenia. Some people with substance disorders - such as alcoholism, for example – will also be more likely to have suffered from it because of an inherited trait. However, just because someone in the family has a condition does not mean that it will necessarily be inherited.

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Which mental health disorders are the most common?

According to the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders these days is depression. Often linked with anxiety, depression will commonly be associated with very low moods, loss of appetite and the inability to sleep. However, it should not be confused with manic depression, which is a less common condition that is also now more referred to as bipolar disorder. General anxiety disorder is also one of the most common mental health disorders in the West. It is characterised by excessive worrying, tense muscles and a loss of control. Panic disorder is also a common problem. It is usually diagnosed following a panic attack that has no obvious cause that might account for it. Other common mental disorders that are treated every day include PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In the main, OCD is associated with rituals or repetitive thought processes that sometimes lead to abnormal behaviours.

Where can you get help with mental health?

The good news is that you can get help with a wide range of mental disorders nowadays. Although most developed countries still have fewer healthcare resources allocated to mental conditions than they do physical ones, understanding that there is a need for more psychiatric treatment is common these days. In the first instance, reading about common disorders on a mental health charity website can help people to understand what they are facing and that they are not alone in doing so. The first professionals port of call with any mental condition should be with a qualified clinician who, for most people, will mean their GP. Doctors may suggest certain treatments or might refer you to a specialist. These days, talking therapies, such as CBT cognitive behavioural therapy, are just as likely to be prescribed as drug therapies. Counselling, psychotherapy and some forms of complementary or alternative therapy are also becoming more mainstream nowadays too.

What can you do to support good mental health?

Thus far, we have looked at some of the downsides associated with poor mental health and how these can develop into more serious issues, including mental disorders. However, it should be noted that most people enjoy good mental stability for all – or the majority – of their lives without needing to worry about mental health conditions. Maintaining a habit of healthy eating is known to have a positive effect on the mental outlook. Refraining from drinking excessively or indulging in substance misuse is also likely to have a positive outcome, mentally speaking. People who take regular exercise will also have a more positive mental well-being on average than people who do not. Surrounding yourself with family and friends is also a good move, so long as they are supportive and understanding. In some cases, people will meditate or use mindfulness techniques to also help them enjoy a more stable and positive mental outlook.

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What are common mental health treatments?

According to NICE, there are four main categories when it comes to treatments for mental disorders. The first is the aforementioned talking therapies. As well as CBT, you may be treated within other contexts, such as group therapy or even psychotherapy. Psychotherapists use a range of techniques to help treat mental disorders, including psychoanalysis and transpersonal psychology, to name but two. The next category is psychiatric medication. Drugs that are commonly used include antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers and minor tranquillisers. Arts and creative therapies are also used more and more these days. Music, visual art, dance and writing, such as diary keeping, can all be used to promote good mental outcomes. Finally, complementary therapies, including yoga, meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy and hypnotherapy, may all be suggested to you. In some cases, people will have a mixture of different therapies to try and help them, and it is not uncommon to take a course of drugs while also exploring alternative medicine, for example.

When does poor mental health become a disability?

Long-term mental health conditions are considered to be a disability in some countries. Long-lasting depression, known as clinical depression, is defined as a psychiatric disability in the United States, for example. In the UK, the Equality Act of 2010 states that a diagnosed mental condition that has lasted – or is likely to last – at least twelve months should be considered as a disability in just the same way that a physical disability would. Normal, day-to-day activities must be negatively impacted by such a condition for it to count, however. The UK government lists dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and OCD as the sort of conditions that might have this effect. Under British law, employers have certain legal duties with regard to disabled employees, which they must discharge even if the disability is down to a mental condition, not a physical one.

How does mental health differ in children?

In the United States, 2020 census data showed that about 13 per cent of all 12 to 17-year-olds reported suffering from an episode of poor mental health, the vast majority of which were not treated professionally. In children, the most common complaints are that of anxiety and depression. Generally speaking, diagnosing and treating mental disorders in youngsters is harder than it is for adults. This is because their ongoing brain development may mask certain issues. Equally, children may not yet have acquired the life skills to help cope with their ailments better. Consequently, specialist professional help is usually required, a resource that is often hard to find. Bear in mind that brain development carries on in young adults up until the age of about 25. Therefore, the issues that affect children and teenagers will also be common in younger adults.

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Which occupations help people with their mental health?

There are plenty of jobs that involve helping people with mental health. Certain public health roles, for example, will focus specifically on mental well-being and promoting the sorts of activities – from art to sport – that can help people to maintain a positive, social and healthy mental outlook. Insofar as offering treatments to people is concerned, psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors all have a role to play. There are social workers who will also specialise in supporting people with mental disorders. Advocates often play a role in supporting people, too, sometimes on a voluntary basis so that people can better access the services available to them. In addition, psychiatric nurses train for the sort of work that might be needed on specialist wards that deal with mentally ill patients.

How can self-compassion assist with good mental health?

There is an increasing awareness of how positive attitudes and mental states can induce better mental well-being. Although there are numerous ways to help achieve this, self-compassion is one of the most popular these days. Self-help books and lectures from some academics in the field frequently advocate for more self-compassion. Essentially, this means being kinder to yourself and less prone to self-criticism and feelings of lack of worth. By self-affirming and feeling more confident about oneself, it is possible to become a more positive person who is willing to forgive themselves minor errors. By being more self-compassionate, the theory is that less negative emotions are felt, thereby exposing the brain to fewer stress hormones. As a result, people should end up with a better overall mental state even if they also have a known mental health condition.

What is the role of physical activity in mental health?

There are four main ways that sports and physical activity can promote better mental health outcomes. The first is that positive or rewarding hormones tend to be released into the brain when we exercise and soon afterwards. In turn, this can improve mental states and mood. Secondly, fewer of the stress hormones we might suffer from tend to be released when we are physically active. People who get into exercise will often report a 'buzz' from it, and this can be accounted for simply from hormones. However, exercising is often a social activity that offers a sense of accomplishment. Consequently, it can help boost morale and feelings of self-worth even if it is not always possible to commit to it regularly. Lastly, it should be added that exercise is likely to leave you more physically drained at the end of the day. This should mean that getting to sleep becomes progressively easier. Good quality sleep is also known to have a beneficial effect on mental well-being.

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Mental health in summary

To conclude, it should be underlined that mental health does not simply mean a poor mental state. Good mental well-being is a part of mental health, just as certain mental disorders are. All too often, the term is used in a negative sense needlessly. Furthermore, there are some social stigmas that persist around people's mental well-being. It is still the norm for people to report that they feel fine even though they may not. However, as more and more people are becoming willing to talk about their mental well-being openly, so such social norms are breaking down. In particular, suicide prevention awareness is making it much more socially acceptable for people to discuss their low feelings and to seek appropriate help these days than ever before.

Although many developed countries try to place mental and physical health on the same footing within their healthcare systems, mental services do tend to be harder to access. This is partly due to historical disparities and partly because society is only just waking up to the extent of the problem with mental ailments. That said, there a numerous pathways to achieving positive mental well-being outcomes, and not all of them involve drug therapies. Nowadays, you are just as likely to be prescribed a talking therapy, an alternative therapy or an arts-based therapy if you see the right professional. Overall, the picture surrounding mental well-being is slowly improving with more that is known with every new study. However, some mental ailments can be very difficult to live with, and people who suffer from them should always be treated with respect and compassion.

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