How common is mental distress?

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Fran Jeffes
Last updated October 2022 | Next review due October 2023

According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people in England are affected by or living with a mental health problem each year.

People with mental distress may experience problems that affect the way they think, feel and behave. The term 'mental distress' describes emotions that impair or hinder a person's ability to cope with ordinary life. It typically refers to a range of mental health issues, from the more common problems such as anxiety and depression to the less common, such as schizophrenia.

Within this fact sheet, you will find the latest statistics and information about mental health problems in Britain. We will also explore the most common forms of mental distress and the symptoms many people experience.


Mental distress in Britain

In October 2022, NHS Digital released its Mental Health Services Monthly Statistics.1 This shows that 1.16 million people were in contact with mental health services by the end of July, 378,125 new referrals were received and 21,785 people were subject to the mental health act.

The stigma associated with mental distress is starting to change. While more people living with mental illness are starting to feel able to talk about their experiences, there is still a long way to go. Stereotypes and negativity surrounding poor mental health continue to mean that many still feel that they have nobody to talk to.

A 2016 Time to Change survey of over 7,000 people living with mental health issues found that 64% were feeling isolated, 61% felt worthless and 60% were ashamed of their condition. They explained they felt this way because of the stigma and discrimination they regularly face.

That said, the results suggest progress has been made in raising awareness and reducing discrimination. Time to Change explained that over half of those involved in the survey said it is easier to talk about their mental distress now than ever before. 60% also said they felt relieved and "like a weight had been lifted" once they talked about their condition.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and not everybody feels they can speak out. The 2011 NICE guidelines reported that many of those suffering do not seek treatment; therefore many conditions are going undiagnosed. This is despite 90% of those diagnosed globally being treated in primary care.2

60% said they felt relieved after talking about their condition.

1 in 6 adults show symptoms associated with mental ill health at any given time.3  

Types of mental distress

According to the 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey*, the most common mental disorder in England is mixed anxiety and depression, which affects 7.8% of people.4

*This is the most recent APMS survey, previous surveys were in 1993 and 2000. 

Following depression, the most common conditions include:

In the 2021 ONS Personal Wellbeing Survey, data shows that both men and women experienced increased anxiety and a reduction in life satisfaction and happiness during the pandemic. Females experienced lower satisfaction and happiness than males. Although the statistics are beginning to level out, we are yet to see them shift, suggesting many people are still experiencing poor mental health.5

Learn more about common mental health concerns and how counselling can help.


Symptoms of mental distress

Any form of mental distress will be accompanied by a set of symptoms. However, each will differ from person to person and vary in severity. Some of the symptoms commonly associated with mental health problems include:

  • panic attacks
  • self-harm
  • psychotic experiences
  • suicidal thoughts

Common symptoms of depression include low mood, fatigue and loss of interest or excitement in things previously enjoyed. Often, symptoms of depression will impair emotional and physical well-being, as well as the behaviour of the person.


Prevalence of mental distress

While the number of people affected by mental distress is shocking and appears to have risen over the years, many believe that the increase is a result of more people talking about it and seeking help. We are becoming more aware of the prevalence of mental health across all genders and age groups and slowly, the stigma is starting to change.

In a 2009 report, it was found that women were almost twice as likely as men to suffer an anxiety disorder in England.6 The 2021 figures released by the Office for National Statistics show there were 5,583 suicides registered in England and Wales. However, males account for three-quarters of all suicides registered in 2021, which has been the case since the mid-1990s.7

Mental distress in pregnancy

There has also been research into the prevalence of mental health problems in pregnancy.

A 2015 report found the most common forms of prenatal and postnatal mental distress include anxiety, depression and PTSD.8 However, it is not just the women suffering mental distress during pregnancy. Research presented in 2018 by the American Psychological Association revealed that a “similar proportion” of new fathers experience some form of depression after the birth of a child.9

Talking to people, and finding out that almost everyone either had suffered either depression, panic attacks, phobias, fears or all of the above. Not necessarily post natal illnesses, but at some point in their lives. The more I was able to talk about it, the better I began to feel. Slowly - very slowly - I began to regain control of my life. For every two steps forward there was one step back, and sometimes I despaired of ever becoming "normal" again.

- Cindy's story.

Young people and mental health 

In 2021, The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that worldwide, 14% of 10-19-year-olds experience a mental health condition.

An English study of 3,366 young people in 2015 found that since 2009, both boys and girls experienced similar levels of mental health concerns, including emotional problems, hyperactivity and conduct problems. However, results showed a significant increase in emotional problems in girls and a decrease in boys experiencing mental health difficulties.10

In 2021, it was estimated that 4.6% of 15-19-year-olds experience an anxiety disorder, with 2.8% experiencing depression.11 It was also found that one in nine children had low well-being with the same amount unable to cope with changes during the pandemic. Overall, children's happiness continues to decline.12


How can counselling help?

One way of managing the effects of a mental health problem is by talking about it. Whether you are living with a mental health problem, or know somebody else who is, it is important to talk about your experiences and the stigma associated.

Counselling will provide you with the opportunity to explore and be open about your thoughts and feelings without shame, judgement or discrimination. The counsellor is someone to listen to you and offer support.

There are a number of treatments available for those living with mental health problems. Talking therapy can help you understand what may have caused the problem and how you can manage it. Common forms of talking therapy include:

Mental distress can affect each person differently, while some symptoms can be more manageable, others may need specialised treatment. To learn more about the treatments, the types of therapy available and how counselling can help, visit our mental health page.


References

  • 1 NHS Digital 2022 (https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-services-monthly statistics/performance-july-provisional-august-2022)
  • 2 NICE guidelines – Common mental health problems, Introduction, May 2011.
  • 3 Mental Health First Aid England 2020 (https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/research-and-evaluation/mental-health-statistics/)
  • 4 The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014
  • 5 ONS – Measuring National Well-being: Personal well-being in the UK, Quarterly: April 2011 to September 2021. 
  • 6 2009. Prevalence, incidence, morbidity and treatment patterns in a cohort of patients diagnosed with anxiety in UK primary care. Family Practice, 27(1), (p.9-16).
  • 7 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2021registrations
  • 8 Ayers, S. and Shakespeare, J. 2015 – Should perinatal mental health be everyone’s business? Primary Health Care Research and Development (page 323-325).
  • 9 American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/08/men-after-childbirth.aspx)
  • 10 2015. Mental Health Difficulties in Early Adolescence: A Comparison of Two Cross-Sectional Studies in England From 2009 to 2014. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(5), (page 502–507).
  • 11 World Health Organisation (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health)
  • 12 Children’s Society 2022: The Good Childhood Report (https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/good-childhood) 
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