Mental health issues can affect anyone at any point in their lives. for some, it may be a short-lived period of depression or anxiety, for others, it can be a lifelong battle with a severe condition. Whether you suffer from a mental health issue or would like to know how to take better care of yourself, we have all the information you need.
Table of contents:
- What is mental health?
- Types of mental health issues
- Indicators of poor mental health
- Causes of mental health problems
- Diagnosing mental health disorder
- Mental health and addiction
- Treating mental health disorders
- Self-care for mental health issues
- Recovering from mental illness
- Supporting a loved one with their mental health
What is mental health?
Being aware of and taking care of our mental health has become increasingly important in modern society.
Where it was once seen as a stigma, dismissed, and kept secret by those suffering; mental health is today seen as equally important as physical health for our overall well-being.
Even with the increased awareness of mental health, many people still go undiagnosed and untreated. This is often due to people not being aware of what good and bad mental health look like. A simple explanation of the difference between good and poor mental health could be:
Good mental health: Being able to think, act, feel, react, and reflect the way you want to in life.
Bad mental health: Being unable to do the above without negative thoughts, emotions, or feelings getting in the way.
Poor mental health can be just as, if not more, impactful to a person's ability to function normally as poor physical health. Mental health conditions also affect many people, with nearly one in five US adults (52.9 million) being recorded to have a mental health condition as of 2020 ranging from common conditions such as anxiety to rarer disorders like schizophrenia.
Types of mental health issues
Mental health conditions come in many forms and with different levels of severity. Some conditions, such as depression and anxiety, may be experienced simultaneously while others have similar symptoms which may lead to more than one condition being diagnosed at once. Additionally, everyone's experience of mental health issues is different and people may have milder or more severe symptoms of a condition than others.
Below is a brief overview of some common mental health conditions and some less frequently occurring disorders.
Depression is characterized by low mood and can last for long periods of time or appear intermittently. Common symptoms of depression include feelings of guilt, worthlessness, despair, exhaustion, and lack of motivation.
These feelings can affect sleep, appetite, sex drive, self-esteem, and even physical health meaning living an everyday life becomes increasingly difficult. Depression comes in many forms such as seasonal affective disorder or postnatal depression and anyone can be affected by it. If left untreated, severe depression can lead to suicidal ideation.
For some, anxiety is a normal part of life and perfectly manageable. It is what we feel when we are worried, afraid, or tense about a situation and will often pass as the event does. For others, anxiety disorders can be a constant and overwhelming feeling of dread that extends to many parts of daily life.
Anxiety has many forms such as social anxiety, PTSD, or general anxiety disorder (GAD), and can lead those affected to be consumed by worry and fear.
Phobias, like anxiety, are characterized by fear, panic, and worry. The difference is that phobias are triggered by specific situations or objects that the sufferer is afraid of (often irrationally).
It can often be difficult to tell the difference between fear and phobia but indicators such as the length of the fear (more than six months), how it impacts day-to-day life, and an above-normal level of fear versus the possible danger all suggest a phobia.
A common misconception is that eating disorders pertain to those who are either extremely over or underweight. In fact, eating disorders can be tied to a range of emotional conflicts that don’t necessarily revolve around food. Regardless of age, gender, or indeed weight, anyone can have an eating disorder.
Common eating disorders include anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia but there are many others that are treated as their own condition or as part of a larger pattern of mental illness.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a common mental health issue that people face after experiencing a traumatic event. Often synonymized with veterans who have experienced combat, PTSD can also occur in those who have been in severe accidents, been the victim of violent or sexual assault, or lost a loved one unexpectedly.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is a form of anxiety disorder but also has its own specific subcategories. The condition is comprised of obsessions; unwelcome thoughts, feelings, and fixations that won’t go away, and compulsions; repetitive, instinctive actions that a person believes must be performed in order to reduce the anxiety obsessions cause.
Though the term OCD is often used in everyday language to describe people who are organized or tidy, the actual condition can be debilitating.
Personality disorders can be far more deeply ingrained in a person’s psyche than other forms of mental health problems. Differences in attitude, behavior, and beliefs may often cause sufferers to find it difficult to navigate life and build relationships with others.
Personality disorders are the focus of some controversy among psychiatrists and patients as the term may seem overly accusatorial or unclear. There are also many categories of personality disorders and it is rare that a person will fit neatly into anyone.
Some diagnoses for personality disorders include:
Dependent personality disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Paranoid personality disorder
Schizoid personality disorder
Avoidant personality disorder
Formally known as manic depression, bipolar disorder affects mood. It is characterized by fluctuating feelings of elation or highs (hypomanic episodes) and extreme lows (depressive episodes) with psychotic symptoms occasionally presenting themselves.
While those with bipolar disorder may have periods of stability and calm, the extreme emotional highs and lows of the condition can have an extreme impact on daily life.
Indicators of poor mental health
It is not always easy to tell when we are experiencing a period of poor mental health. We may be going through a difficult time at work and not realize what the stress is doing to our minds, we may experience something traumatic and not be able to process it, or we may not be fully aware of the damage a personality disorder is having on our lives.
By knowing the signs of mental health problems it is easier to seek help from therapists and medical professionals. Some common indicators of mental health issues include:
Panic attacks are an indicator of anxiety disorders and some other conditions. They are an extreme fear response, an exaggeration of the body's response to danger, though for those suffering from anxiety they will often come on in nonhostile situations. People may experience panic attacks due to overstimulation, stress, sadness, and shock.
The symptoms of a panic attack can start out small but often quickly snowball. Physical symptoms include:
Increased heart rate
Unable to breathe normally
Trembling in the limbs and extremities
Dissociation (feeling disconnected from your body)
The signs of a panic attack may feel like a more serious medical condition such as a heart attack and can be incredibly uncomfortable.
Acts of physical violence towards one's own body as a way of coping with difficult emotions, painful memories, or overwhelming circumstances are a strong indicator of a mental health issue.
Self-harm is often a side effect of long-term depression and occasionally obsessive-compulsive disorder. People who self-harm will often use razor blades or other sharp objects to make small cuts on their skin, often in easily hidden areas (such as the thighs or stomach). This can make it very difficult to know if someone you care about is self-harming.
While self-harm may create a short-term sense of relief or control, it does not solve the underlying condition and any sense of relief will soon leave and the negative emotions will only get worse.
Suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts can occur in anyone and many people will experience some form of suicidal thoughts in their life. These thoughts can be deeply unpleasant and intrusive and can greatly exacerbate existing mental illnesses like depression.
Many don’t act on suicidal thoughts but sadly some do. If you begin to feel you may act on your suicidal feelings then contact someone immediately. If you feel you can call someone close to you do, if not call the emergency services.
Suicide prevention helplines
If you're going through a difficult time, help is available. The following hotlines are confidential and most provide 24/7 phone support to people struggling with suicidal thoughts:
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Text or call 988 for 24/7 support on any phone or phoning -800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Crisis Text Line: For those who prefer to text rather than call, text HELLO to 741741 to open a dialogue with a trained responder (24/7 support available)
Veterans Crisis Line: Specifically for active duty or retired US military veterans. Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder. You can also start a confidential online chat session at Veterans Crisis Chat.
Samaritans (UK only): Call, email, or online chat with a trained support person any time of the day or night, 365 days a year. Call them for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected], or visit samaritans.org to find more details.
A psychotic episode can come in many forms but is often characterized by seeing and perceiving reality and the world around you differently to everyone else. This can include:
Delusions (paranoia, delusional jealousy, grandeur)
Hallucinations (hearing voices, seeing things)
Unusual beliefs or thoughts
Becoming isolated from friends and family
Being unable to think clearly
Psychosis is different for everyone and can be a sign or symptom of many mental health conditions such as bipolar, schizophrenia, severe anxiety, and depression.
Causes of mental health problems
Poor mental health can stem from a variety of causes. It can also be short-term, long-term, recurring, or intermittent and some may be more deeply affected by some known causes than others.
The following are well-documented causes of mental health issues and/or may result in a period of poor mental health:
Issues in childhood (abuse, neglect, trauma)
Discrimination or stigma (racism, sexism, genderism)
Homelessness or becoming unhomed
Stress (work, finances, relationships)
Poverty and/or debt
Loss or bereavement
Adult trauma (violent or sexual assault, severe accidents, domestic abuse)
Long-term physical health conditions (cancer, dementia, epilepsy, disability)
Lifestyle (work, diet, sleep patterns, sex)
Can mental health problems be genetic?
There has been extensive research into the relationship between mental illness and family lineage and findings suggest that there may be evidence of mental health issues running in families. For example, the child of someone with bipolar disorder may be more likely to develop the condition at some point in their life.
While links between family and mental health have been recorded, it is not proven that this is genetic. Current findings suggest that environmental factors such as where we grow up and with who have more of an impact on adult mental health and no distinct genes have been isolated as a cause for any mental health condition.
In addition, it is perfectly likely that a person will experience poor mental health without any documented family members having experienced it.
Does brain chemistry affect mental health?
Research into chemical imbalances in the brain as a cause of mental illness has resulted in few definitive conclusions. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are the chemicals that induce positive moods and happiness. Studies have attempted to prove that an imbalance of these neurotransmitters may result in mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Though results indicate a link between the two, it is unclear if the mental health condition is the cause or result of chemical imbalance in the brain.
The link between brain function and mental health may lie within the limbic system, a group of systems located in the brain that are responsible for mood and emotional response. These areas are:
- limbic cortex (behavioral regulation)
- Hippocampus (learning and memory)
- Hypothalamus (releasing hormones, controlling appetite, managing sexual behavior, regulating emotional responses, regulating body temperature)
- Amygdala (fear and pleasure)
While a link between these systems and mental health is likely, further research is required to identify any definitive correlation.
Diagnosing mental health disorder
Diagnosing mental health disorders and conditions is rarely straightforwards. Psychiatrists and doctors will often refer to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5) and The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) to classify and diagnose various disorders.
Many of these conditions will have measuring criteria to assess the presence and severity of conditions.
For example, substance use disorder (addictions) has 11 criteria used to assess the negative impacts substance use has on a person's life. If an individual meets six or more of the criteria then they will be labeled with a severe substance use disorder.
While diagnostic manuals are the most comprehensive and regulated tool for diagnosing mental health conditions, there are inherent flaws and shortcomings in the system. There are many mental health conditions that exhibit the same symptoms in mild cases, for example. This can lead to a potential incorrect diagnosis or failure to identify a dual diagnosis.
A person diagnosed with a particular condition may also not display any symptoms for a long time, which can often lead to the individual believing the situation to be gone. Diagnosing doctors will often outline the reality that mental health problems will always be present and even when dormant require constant monitoring to ensure they are managed properly.
Mental health and addiction
In previous generations, addiction to drugs and alcohol was regarded as a moral failing or weakness, and people experiencing it were subjected to imprisonment and scorn. While the media sometimes still deploys these outdated stereotypes and the justice system still criminalizes and jails people addicted to illicit substances, addiction is now widely regarded by doctors and scientists as a medical condition—chronic, sometimes relapsing, but treatable.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5) classifies addiction as a mental health condition called substance use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) both describe addiction as a brain disease, a term that captures the neurological changes caused by repeated exposure to a drug and manifesting as compulsive behavior.
There’s no tension between these two definitions. Researchers have increasingly discovered the neurological underpinnings of many mental health conditions and how our brain informs our thinking and behavior, including the use of drugs.
Additionally, thinking of addiction as a neuropsychological disorder doesn’t discredit evidence that our social environments also contribute to the development of addiction. Perceptions, availability, and use of drugs in our families, friendship groups, and broader society can all predispose someone to addiction and influence how successful their treatment is.
Most scientists, doctors, and mental health professionals endorse a biopsychosocial model of addiction that accounts for all these factors.
Read here to learn more about addiction and mental health
Treating mental health disorders
Treatment for mental health issues has advanced considerably over the past couple of decades. Treatment is accessible for all forms of recognized mental health conditions regardless of severity, and there are many forms and combinations of treatment available. Here are some of the most common forms of treatment and the conditions they focus on.
Talking treatments include all forms of talking therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and group therapy. These forms of treatment provide a space to talk through your thoughts and feelings and explore anything that is troubling you. These sessions, often at a specific time and place each week or fortnightly can help those with mental health problems in a range of ways, such as:
Coping with upsetting experiences/trauma
Working through a specific issue
Develop healthier daily habits
Work to improve behaviors
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most widely known and widely used forms of talking therapies used to treat a wide range of mental health issues. It is often a short-term treatment that aims to find connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and to develop skill sets to handle negative emotional responses.
While it is useful for many, some mental health problems don’t benefit from CBT and some individuals prefer a more substantial, in-depth analysis of their issues.
Medications are often prescribed in conjunction with talking therapies and are intended to manage symptoms as opposed to curing anything. As with talking therapies, there is a range of mental health-related medications all with their own uses for certain conditions.
Medications used to treat mental health conditions include:
Despite their name, antidepressants are used to treat more mental health issues than just depression. They have been proven to help manage symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and some symptoms of personality disorders.
Variations of antidepressants include:
Sedatives, most commonly benzodiazepines, are used to regulate mood as they slow brain function. They are predominantly used in treating anxiety disorders, as well as depression and symptoms of other mental health conditions.
Common forms of benzodiazepine used in treating mental health disorders include:
Benzodiazepines are a central nervous system depressant that can lead to health complications if administered to someone with an existing health condition. They also hold a high potential for abuse and addiction, meaning prescribing doctors have to be vigilant about a patient's history of drug abuse before prescribing.
Many mental health problems affect sleep and can lead to insomnia, often requiring the need for sleeping medication. Sleeping pills can also help to control mood when taken under careful prescription. Sleeping pills are not commonly prescribed for mental health conditions as some (e.g. severe depression) can lead to suicidal thoughts and feelings which may lead to patients overdosing on them.
Antipsychotic drugs are prescribed to manage symptoms of mental health disorders that have difficult attitudes and psychosis associated with them. These can include:
Borderline personality disorder
They help to control negative outbursts as well as mania, aggression, agitation, hypomania, and psychosis.
Self-care for mental health issues
If you feel that your mental health is suffering or a just looking to improve your mood and outlook, then there are a range of tried and tested self-care techniques that can help. Many of these are intended to be upheld on a continuous basis and should be engaged with on a daily basis.
Self-care for mental health can include:
Be aware of your mental health - Checking in regularly about how you feel and your emotional state can help to identify any negative changes. Many people find keeping an emotional journal can help with awareness, as can telling doctors/therapists what techniques and treatments have helped the most your current mental health.
Make time for therapeutic activities - Engaging in outdoor activities, social events, holistic experiences, and creative endeavors can all help to improve mental health. It can also be beneficial to take up new hobbies and activities in order to expand the range of experiences you find pleasurable and to meet new people.
Maintain positive physical health - Our minds and our bodies react to one another constantly, and a decline in health of one will often make the other worse. By maintaining a healthy diet, sleep pattern, and exercise your mind will likely feel better for it.
Speak to a specialist - Even if you aren’t currently having some form of talking therapy, speaking to a professional can be helpful, especially if going through a bad period. There are many mental health organizations that can help with everyday issues and talk you through periods of poor mental health.
While self-care can help manage mental health issues, it is sometimes not enough and professional help is needed. If you feel that your mental health is still suffering even if you regularly practice positive self-care techniques then you will likely benefit from speaking to a professional.
Recovering from mental illness
While mental health problems may reoccur in a person's life, it is possible to recover from them. Even if a mental health issue does reoccur, with the right treatment, support, and self-care techniques they are often manageable.
Even more severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia or major depressive disorder (MDD) can become managed over time with the right treatment. Though going back to how life was before the presence of a mental health condition is often unlikely, recovery can mean developing a new outlook for a positive way of life.
Recovery from mental health issues is a long journey that is rarely easy or straightforward. There are many ups and downs to be faced and it's important to remember that a lapse in mental health does not mean relapse. Taking every day as it comes, practicing techniques learned in therapy, maintaining medications, and continuous self-care all contribute to ongoing recovery.
Supporting a loved one with their mental health
Seeing someone you care about; be they family, friend, or partner, go through a period of poor mental health can be difficult and you may feel powerless to help. However, you do not need to be a mental health professional to help someone who is unwell and there are many ways to be supportive. Often, it's small everyday help provided by loved ones that really help make a difference to those suffering.
You don’t need to be an expert in someone's condition to be supportive. If you know they are suffering, or their behavior suggests they are unwell, then simply letting them know they don’t have to keep it to themselves can help. They may not want to talk about it immediately, which is fine, but iterating that you are there for them lets them know you are there.
If you have never suffered any negative mental health issues yourself, it may be difficult to fully empathize when a loved one is experiencing them. It is important to be mindful not to make remarks like ‘cheer up’ or ‘get it together’ as they are dismissive and will only make the person suffering feel worse. Try listening to what they are saying and try to imagine how they are feeling, even if you haven’t been in their shoes.
Ask how you can help
Before diving in with recommendations and advice on how they can get better, see what help your loved one wants from you if any. Being supportive does not mean telling someone what they should be doing and should be seen as a helping hand when they need it.
Help with routine where possible
A lot of mental health treatment revolves around routine and keeping daily practices regimented. Helping a loved one keep on top of their daily routine, including taking medication, self-care exercises, attending appointments, keeping a healthy sleep schedule, and maintaining any well-being activities all help with mental health treatment.
Talk about other things
It’s important to not let a person's mental health condition define them. Remember that they have interests that are not linked to their mental health and talking about them, as well as general conversation, can help to keep positive aspects of their lives towards the front of their mind.
Be trusting and respectful
Mental health issues can have a big impact on trust and respect in relationships, family bonds, and friendships. By being open and displaying trust in someone with mental health issues, you can help rebuild respect and instill self-esteem in them.
Take care of yourself
Supporting a loved one with mental health issues can be stressful, painful, and psychologically exhausting. It is important to maintain your own mental health and ensure you do not burn yourself out by looking after someone else. Looking after your own well-being can take many forms, such as:
Talk to someone - You don’t need a mental health issue to talk to someone about how you feel. Be it a professional therapist or a close friend, discussing how the situation makes you feel can release tension and offer clarity.
Set boundaries - It may feel like you have to give everything up in order to support someone with mental health problems, but this approach is often counter-productive for both. By having clear boundaries, be they activities or periods of the day that you have to yourself, can help create distinction and ensure you are taking time for yourself.
Share your responsibilities - If possible, try sharing the amount of time you spend looking after someone with another person. For example, if you are parents looking after a child with poor mental health, ensure that you both split care equally and that you have time together and for yourselves.
Look at what support is available to you - There are many avenues for getting support for mental health-related problems and you may be entitled to it. Speak to your local authority, charities, and government healthcare organizations to see if there are any steps that can be taken to help you.