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Mental Health: An Overview

Everything you need to know about mental illnesses, including their diagnosis, treatment and more.

What is mental health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as

"A state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community".

They add that mental health is "an integral and essential component" of overall health, and so give mental health every bit as much weight as physical health.

Mental health is about more than mental disorders or disabilities. Mental health is, amongst other things, what enables us to effectively think, feel, or even interact with one another.

Poor mental health is, according to the WHO, often associated with:

  • Sudden or rapid changes in circumstances
  • Stressful or toxic work conditions
  • Discrimination of any form
  • Social exclusion
  • Unhealthy lifestyles
  • Physical illness
  • Personality traits
  • Genetic factors

What is mental illness?

Mental illness refers to a wide range of conditions that directly affect mental health. Mental illnesses can affect mood, behaviour, thinking and sometimes all three at once. Just like physical illness, mental illness can affect anyone of any age, sex or race.

Mental illnesses categorically cannot be overcome with willpower alone, to suggest that they can is to misunderstand the potency of some mental illnesses, and to discredit the individual struggle of the mental illness sufferer.

Is mental illness common?

A UK government survey from 2014 revealed the following:

  • One in six adults meet the criteria for common mental disorders
  • One in five women report common mental illness symptoms
  • One in eight men report common mental illness symptoms
  • Women are more likely than men to report severe symptoms of mental illness
  • Since 2000, rates of mental illness in women have steadily increased, but remained stable in men
  • Mental illness is most common in people living alone, with poor physical health or without stable employment

What forms of mental illness are there?

Some of the most frequently occurring mental illnesses in the UK today.


A healthy emotion that becomes unhealthy when it gets out of control or harms those around you.

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A feeling of unease, worry or fear which, when persistent, can interfere with and disrupt daily life.

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Consistently sad, empty or irritable mood, affecting your ability to function with low energy or poor concentration.

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Eating disorder

Becoming fixated with your weight or body shape to the point of eating too little, or too much.

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The whole range of emotions associated with the loss of someone or something important to us.

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Difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking early and being unable to get back to sleep.

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Mood swings

Sudden, dramatic changes in mood with no obvious external causes or contributing factors.

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Where unwanted, sometimes unpleasant thoughts lead to repetitive, seemingly necessary behaviours.

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A sudden, unexpected sensation of fear or anxiety, sometimes with no clear trigger.

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A persistent, unshakeable fear of a specific object, activity or situation, at odds with the risk that it actually poses.

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Not a mental illness, but still a habit or compulsion that may require mental health treatment techniques to tackle.

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A response to external events that throws you off-balance and challenges or surpasses your ability to cope.

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Substance abuse

The consistent and harmful use of any substance (e.g. drugs or alcohol) for mood-altering purposes.

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What are the common signs of mental illness?

According to the American Psychiatry Association, if any of the following symptoms are occurring and visible, you should speak to a doctor:

  • Dramatic changes in sleeping or appetite
  • Rapid, unpredictable changes in mood or depressed feelings
  • Sudden urge to withdraw socially
  • Loss of interest in or engagement with activities previously enjoyed
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks at school, work or home
  • Raised sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch
  • Difficulty with concentration, memory or logical thought
  • Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
  • Avoidance of overstimulating situations
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings
  • Strong illogical or unwarranted feelings or intuitions
  • Fear or suspicion of others with little evidence
  • Out of character or otherwise peculiar behaviour

Your mental health questions, answered

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

One of the UK's leading mental health charities, Mind, note that there are three main areas that doctors investigate when it comes to potentially diagnosing mental illness:

  • Your recent experiences and behaviours
  • How long you've been experiencing your symptoms
  • The impact your symptoms are having on your life

The NHS note that doctors' assessments may be more thorough still, covering the following:

  • Physical health and wellbeing
  • Financial circumstances and living arrangements
  • Employment status
  • Relationships with friends, family and co-workers
  • Past experiences and family history of mental illness
  • Issues relevant to your own safety, or the safety of others
  • Whether anyone in your life depends on you

This might sound like a lot, but remember that you only have to talk about what you want to talk about, and reveal what you want to reveal. As with any health complaint, the more you can tell your doctor, the better. No matter what you do or don't reveal, the key is to be as frank and open as possible – in doing so, the doctor stands the best possible chance of providing you with a clear diagnosis.

The two most common forms of treatment for mental illness are talking therapies and psychiatric medication.

A lot of patients are already somewhat familiar with talking therapies, having seen them portrayed in films and TV. Be wary of these portrayals, as they often paint pictures of manipulative or overtly taxing sessions that would be deemed unethical by any care guidelines under the sun.

Cognitive behavioural therapy and person-centred therapy are two popular forms of talking therapy. The former is short-term, helping you to identify the connections you tend to make between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, then directing you to challenge the connections you naturally form. The latter is longer term, and entirely non-directive, placing patients with an empathetic, non-judgemental voice that accepts what the patient has to say without challenging or second guessing them – the theory being that the patient will naturally grow psychologically if given a healthy environment in which to do so.

Alternatively, there are four main categories of medication that can be used to treat mental illnesss – antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, antipsychotic medication and mood-stabilising medications. The names of each are fairly self explanatory, easing symptoms of prevalent mental health conditions. The types of medication that you are offered will depend entirely on the severity of your symptoms, and the nature of your diagnosis.

Exercise has a "huge potential to enhance our [mental] wellbeing", according to the Mental Health Foundation. They add that even 10 minutes of brisk walking can make us more alert and energetic, as well as improving our overall mood. Regular exercise can be more impactful still, boosting our self esteem and reducing both stress and anxiety. Perhaps most persuasive of all is their suggestion that exercise can prevent the development of mental health problems altogether, and improve the quality of life for those already experiencing mental illness.

As for how much exercise we should do to have an impact on our mental health, the Department of Health recommends that adults should be active daily, completing 2.5 hours of moderate intensity exercise each week – averaging out at 30 minutes, five times a week. Once you start, you will feel the benefits in no time at all.

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

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