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. We all have mental health. It does not come and go; it’s with us constantly throughout our lifetime.
It is just the same as the idea of physical health, only, unlike physical health, there are no tests we can take to check how mentally healthy we are, and we cannot always see from the outside when we are in poor mental health. It’s a very personal, individual sense of who we are and how we feel.
Mental health is often used interchangeably with the terms emotional health and well-being - and 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 be said if we are mentally unwell. Good mental health can be maintained with self-care but, if we experience a problem, it will rarely go away on its own. We may require further help, for example, through talking therapies such as psychotherapy and counselling.
On this page, we will explore mental health in more detail, including how counselling can help support you through mental health problems.
Types of mental health issues
Mental health issues can have a profound impact on how we think, feel and behave. They can range from the daily worries we all have from time to time, to serious long-term problems that require treatment to manage effectively.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, there are two main types of mental health problems. The categories are neurotic or psychotic symptoms. These definitions can help professionals with diagnosis and treatment. However, some people may experience a combination of neurosis and psychosis, therefore, distinguishing between the two may not always be useful.
Individuals that have 'common mental health issues' are very likely to have neurotic symptoms. These are severe versions of 'normal' emotions, such as stress, sadness and anxiety. We all feel down or worried every now and then but, if those emotions start impacting daily life, it may be a sign of a mental health problem.
If mental health issues are ignored or dismissed as character traits it can lead to further problems. For example, some people may no longer feel able to lead an enjoyable and productive life. This is why it is so important to seek support as soon as your problems overcome your ability to cope.
Mental health issues with neurotic symptoms include:
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- panic disorders
Mental health issues with psychotic symptoms are less common. Research shows around two in every 100 people in the UK have psychosis. Psychotic symptoms interfere with a person's perception of reality and may include hallucinations. These include seeing, smelling, hearing or feeling things that no one else can. People experiencing psychosis may also form unrealistic views about themselves, other people and the world around them.
Mental health issues with psychotic symptoms include:
- eating disorders
- substance abuse
- bipolar disorder
- personality disorder
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. They are often hidden or mistaken for other things.
You can find more information about symptoms of specific mental health conditions in our ‘What’s worrying you?’ section.
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 think you might have an issue with your emotional well-being, you should visit your GP.
What causes mental health issues?
Mental health issues 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:
- social and environmental
A 'psychological cause' is something that affects the mind or emotional state. Traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one or a serious 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. Examples include self-harm, drug abuse, bulimia and suicidal thoughts.
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 his or her 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.
- Nutrition - Links have been found between certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies (e.g. Vitamin D, zinc and fatty acids) and our emotional well-being.
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
Sometimes it’s not possible to change these things but, sometimes, it is. If you can improve your social and physical environment somehow, you may be able to improve your emotional well-being. Counselling is one means of mental health support that can help you make positive changes.
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:
Prescribed medication to control symptoms (they are not a cure).
Talking therapies including psychotherapy, counselling, group psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and other forms of mental health counselling.
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.
Medication is prescribed to help reduce the symptoms of some mental health issues. Sometimes drugs can help to improve quality of life and make people feel less overwhelmed by their condition. However, they are not provided as a cure.
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 of mood.
- Benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety.
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.
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. Often people have to learn to live with their problems. They may find everyday situations such as work and socialising particularly difficult.
The following video from Mind introduces 13 people, aged 18-25, who all talk about what it's like to live with a mental health problem, and what helps them cope.
Unfortunately, the social stigma attached to mental health still exists in the UK. 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, 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. Common misconceptions include:
- All people with mental health problems are dangerous and violent.
- Mental health issues are a character flaw and not an actual condition.
In order to tackle these damaging stereotypes, more needs to be done to broaden communication between people with mental health issues and the wider community. This should help spread awareness that sufferers aren't 'mad', 'weak', or 'dangerous'. They are but normal people coping with challenging conditions.
Attending work and school
Mental health 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. This is 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.
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.
Having children can make living with mental health issues even more challenging. Parents need to be stable and supportive to provide the best care for their children. Unfortunately, some mental health problems, by nature, make this difficult.
The ups and downs, bad days and good days can be difficult for children to deal with. Having the right mental health support in place is important. Talking therapies and counselling can help 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 related issues 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:
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