Mental health

Written by Rebecca Wright

Rebecca Wright

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated on 12th April, 2022

When we talk about mental health, there is often a misconception about what it is and who it affects. First and foremost, mental health is not the same as a mental health issue or illness. We all have mental health. It does not come and go; it’s with us constantly, throughout our lifetime.

The term mental health is often used interchangeably with emotional health and well-being. Our mental state is certainly a key part of our overall well-being. It refers to the way in which we are aware of our own abilities and how well we cope with the ups and downs of life.

If we are physically unwell, say, with a cold, it may go away on its own within a week. But, the same cannot usually be said if we are mentally unwell. Good mental health can be maintained with self-care but, if we experience a problem, it may not go away on its own. We may require further help, for example, through talking therapies such as psychotherapy and counselling.

In this video, counsellor John-Paul Davies MBACP, PG Dip discusses how we can take care of our mental health, stay in a calm and alive place, and how counselling can support us.

Types of mental health conditions

Mental health issues can have a profound impact on how we think, feel and behave. They can range from worries we all have from time to time, to long-term conditions that require treatment to manage effectively.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, traditionally mental health conditions have been divided into two categories; ‘neurotic’ (which is now more frequently called ‘common mental health problems’) and ‘psychotic’ (where symptoms interfere with your perception of reality).

Labels and categories can be helpful for professionals to diagnose and treat a problem, however, there are controversies surrounding this with some believing generalisations and assumptions interfere with individual care. Some people may also experience a combination of neurosis and psychosis, therefore, distinguishing between the two may not always be useful.


Signs of a mental health problem

When you get a physical illness like a cold, you may experience symptoms such as a sore throat and a blocked nose. These signs tell you that something is wrong so you can take medication, or rest in bed for a few days. When it comes to our emotional well-being, the signs aren't always so obvious. 

One thing to remember is that there is no set list when it comes to the signs and symptoms of mental health problems. Each condition varies and, of course, each individual is different too. If you are worried about your mental health, you should visit your GP for advice on what could help.

Learn more about different symptoms of mental health conditions in our ‘What’s worrying you?’ section.

What causes mental health issues?

Mental health conditions are complex and can have a wide range of causes. Often, it is not known exactly why someone develops symptoms. There are, however, certain factors that are thought to play a role in triggering problems. These are:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • social and environmental

Psychological causes

A 'psychological cause' is something that affects the mind or emotional state. Traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one or a road accident can trigger mental health issues.

When something traumatic occurs, it can completely change a person's perception of the world. This can result in feelings of anger, helplessness, fear and guilt. These may persist long after the event has happened. As a person tries to deal with and contain their negative feelings, unhealthy behaviours can emerge.

Physical causes

A 'physical cause' is something that affects the body on a biological level. Physical causes of some mental health issues include:

  • Genetics. Experts believe some people are more at risk than others. They have a genetic 'predisposition' because of genes passed down from parents.
  • Early development. Some studies suggest a baby is at greater risk if their mother takes drugs or contracts a virus while she's pregnant.
  • Head injuries. In some cases, people develop psychotic symptoms after a serious head injury.

Social and environmental causes

The things that happen around us can have a big impact on mental health. Social and environmental causes include:

  • where you live
  • where you work
  • the relationships you have with family and friends
  • whether or not you deal with societal oppression (like racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.)

Mental health support

Mental health support covers a range of things designed to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. The most common types of treatments include talking therapies and medication. 

If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, it is advisable to speak to your GP. They will be able to diagnose any problems and recommend treatment options. It is important to note that all appointments and topics discussed are completely confidential.  

Talking therapies

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.

I met my counsellor, Cathy, feeling apprehensive and nervous. I had pre-warned her about how bad I am at talking about my feelings, but she made me feel as comfortable as possible and came across warm and understanding. She was so patient with me, not pushing me to talk about stuff if I wasn't ready to.

- Sophie tells her story of how counselling helped her after a traumatic car crash.

Counselling involves talking about your problems with a trained mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychotherapist. Talking therapies can help you to talk freely, without fear of criticism or judgement, understand what may have caused your problems and how to manage them.

There are many different types of talking therapy that can help. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - This type of mental health counselling focuses on the 'here and now'. It aims to change negative patterns of thinking and behaving.
  • Cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) - Explores new ways for the client to cope with problems.
  • Creative therapies - Art therapy, drama therapy and music therapy are all types of creative therapy that offer alternative ways of channelling emotions.
  • Family therapy - Encourages the family to engage as a unit to solve problems that affect home life.
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) - Teaches clients how to react normally to emotional triggers.
Therapists who can help with mental health

Medication

Medication is sometimes prescribed to help reduce the symptoms of mental health conditions. Sometimes medication can help to improve quality of life and make people feel less overwhelmed by their condition. 

Depending on the type of mental health problem you have, you might be prescribed:

  • antipsychotics to reduce symptoms of psychosis (i.e. hallucinations, distorted view of reality)
  • antidepressants to reduce the symptoms of depression (i.e. loss of emotion, low moods)
  • mood stabilisers to moderate extreme changes in mood
  • benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety

Self-care for mental health

Prioritising self-care is something we can all do to help maintain our mental health. This can be as simple as taking any prescribed medication and showering to setting boundaries, carving out time for yourself and doing activities that make you happy. 

When we look after ourselves, we give ourselves space to become more aware of our emotional well-being, so we can notice any signs that something’s wrong. Learn more about self-care in our self-help hub.


Challenges of living with mental health issues

Mental health issues are complex. Unlike a cold or cough, symptoms do not clear up after a course of antibiotics and some people have to learn to live with their condition. They may find everyday situations, such as work and socialising, particularly difficult.

Social stigma

Unfortunately, the social stigma attached to mental health still exists. According to the Mental Health Foundation, nine out of 10 people with mental health issues are affected by discrimination of some kind. Other people's ignorance and lack of understanding can make it hard for people with certain conditions to maintain stable relationships, and find work or suitable housing. Some may find themselves socially excluded from mainstream society.

Research and a greater understanding of some conditions have helped change views of mental health. However, sensationalised films, news articles and stories mean misconceptions still exist. In order to tackle damaging stereotypes, more needs to be done to broaden communication between people with mental illness and the wider community to help spread awareness and understanding.

Mental illness isn’t linear – how you’re feeling can change from day to day, and week to week. It can be a struggle to live with, manage, and/or recover from. Then there will also be times when, although we may be ill, we feel we can go out and enjoy ourselves. But often the stigma we encounter can stop us from making the most of these moments.

- Writer Katie Conibear shares her thoughts on enjoying yourself while living with mental illness

Attending work and school

Statistics show that one in six workers are dealing with a mental health issue at any one time. Certain problems can be caused by work (usually stress and anxiety), while some mental health conditions can impact our ability to work productively. Many people are reluctant to speak about mental health in the workplace because they fear they may be penalised or judged for it.

Young people in school worry they'll face criticism, alienation or bullying if their peers know they have mental health issues. While it can be difficult to talk about their emotional well-being with peers, colleagues and bosses, keeping an open dialogue in school and the workplace is important. It could help alleviate stigma and prevent problems from escalating.

Relationships

Some mental health issues can make it difficult for people to build healthy relationships. When problems emerge after a couple has been together for some time, the new challenges can lead to difficulties. Frustration and lack of understanding can cause tension and arguments. 

Couples counselling is helpful for those who are keen to open up and make space for change in their relationship. This type of mental health support can help couples to learn ways of coping with mental health issues together.

Therapists Lee Valls and Beverley Hills explain more about couples counselling:

Parenting

Having children can make living with mental health issues even more challenging. Having the right mental health support in place is important, with talking therapies and counselling helping families overcome the challenges together.

Getting the conversation about mental health started with your children can help them learn about looking after their health and well-being as a whole. For more advice, read ‘Let’s talk: teaching kids about mental health’ or visit our child counselling section for more specific help.


What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

Mental health covers a wide spectrum of issues, some of which require specialised treatment. To find out more about different mental health conditions and recommended courses of action, we recommend you read through the official guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which can be found here:

Mental Health and behavioural conditions


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