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Understanding Mental Health


“How is your mind today?”

Is that a question you have ever been asked? I didn’t think so. Nobody ever asks this question, even when someone is known to be experiencing mental illness, in spite of the fact that statistics show that 25% of people in the world will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives.

On the other hand, it would be considered rude if you knew someone had a broken bone or a physical illness and you didn’t ask them how they were. Mental illness often comes with a sense of shame and stigma, attached with people afraid to say how they are feeling as they fear being judged.

“Why, when you have a mental disease, is it always considered an act of imagination? Why is it that every organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except the brain?” 
― Ruby Wax in Frazzled.


We would not tell a person with two broken legs to get up and walk, yet somebody with mental health issues is expected to get on with things, in fact is even sometimes considered to be in someway, selfish or lazy.

You wouldn’t consider going up to someone suffering from Alzheimers to yell, “Come on, get with it, you remember where you left your keys?” – Ruby Wax in Frazzled

Mental Health is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as:

“A state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stress of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

It is normal for everybody to have ups and downs in life, nobody is happy all of the time. We are all affected by events and experiences, such as relationship difficulties, job loss, or the death of a loved one. Smaller day to day events (work stress, child rearing, financial trouble, illness) can affect us too.

These things can interfere with our levels of happiness and fulfillment but if our mental health is in good shape, we find ways of coping and managing our difficulties. The ability to bounce back is a sign of a healthy mind, this is known as resilience.

If you or a loved one is experiencing any signs or symptoms of mental illness, always speak to your GP, who will help you to gain the proper diagnosis.

What is Mental Health?


Mental Illness occurs when:

Health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour (or a combination of these), mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities”. -WHO

Causes of mental illness

Some of the reasons people become mentally ill:

  • Severe or long term stress (illness, financial worries, relationship problems, being a carer etc)
  • Social isolation or loneliness (stay-at home mums, elderly, unemployed) Abuse (can be either abuse that happened in childhood, physical, sexual or emotional, or could be still happening, e.g domestic abuse)
  • Difficult experiences or trauma (current or in the past)
  • Bereavement
  • Environmental Factors (e.g Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD)

Types of Mental Illness

The most common mental illnesses that people experience or are familiar with are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety and Panic Disorders
  • Addictions/substance abuse
  • Eating Disorders (anorexia or bulimia)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Statistics show that the most prevalent forms of mental illness in society are anxiety and depression – WHO.

Recognizing Mental Illness

This video from the WHO gives a great depiction of what it is like to live with depression. Sometimes the “black dog” of depression is just walking behind you, but sometimes he is sitting on your head, making normal life impossible.

Depression is often described as feelings of being:

  • Sad
  • Numb
  • Detached
  • Tired
  • Unmotivated
  • Disinterested
  • Irritable
  • Unable to enjoy anything anymore
  • Physically exhausted
  • Unable to sleep or can’t get enough sleep
  • The most menial daily tasks can feel like climbing a mountain

To make it worse, in spite of all this, people with mental illness often feel like they have to act as if nothing is wrong. Either because they are ashamed, they are afraid of the consequences of people knowing they have a mental illness, or they simply cannot put words on how they are feeling.

“Sometimes when I say I’m ok, I need someone to look me in the eye and say I know you are not.” – Eeyore in Tao of Pooh

Mental Illness and Relationships

Mental illness can have a negative effect on close relationships, the person who is ill may:

  • Have difficulty in communicating
  • Have reduced libido, no interest in the physical side of the relationship
  • Appear distant and disinterested
  • Be irritable or angry
  • Be unable to participate in family life

What To Do If A Loved One Has A Mental Illness

  • Be prepared to listen and try to understand what the person is going through
  • Gently encourage them to particapate in activities. See list below for activies that may be helpful
  • Look after yourself by taking time out for your own activities and rest so you do not become too weighed down
  • Try to remain supportive

Make sure they have access to information and encourage them to seek help but be gentle with them, don’t force it, unless you think the person is suicidal then seek help immediately.

Take a look at our “Supporting a friend or family member with health mental illness” article for information on this.

Therapies for Mental Health


Talk Therapies

Talk therapies can be counselling, psychotherapy or psychology, they are designed to help you to express thoughts, feelings and emotions in a safe space with a qualified professional, to help resolve your difficulties.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a specific type of therapy which aims to make the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors, to help you to develop strategies and techniques to manage the negative ones. The aim is to learn to stop the cycle of negative thinking patterns, by consciously examining and questioning long-held beliefs, patterns of behavior that don’t serve your best interest anymore and learning to change them.


Sometimes medication is considered necessary and can be helpful to some people.

Arts and Creative therapies and Complementary therapies

Art, music or drama therapy. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, acupuncture can be also help with different types of mental illnesses.

Mental Health and Society


There is still often an attitude that a mentally ill person is somehow in control of how they are, or are just being lazy or selfish. The Mental Health Foundation in the UK reports that 9 out of 10 people with mental illness, have experienced stigma from society, family, friends and employers.

However, a survey carried out by Time to Change found significant improvements in the attitudes towards mental illness between 2008 and 2014.

Initiatives such as;

  • Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May, 2018 UK).
  • World Mental Health Day (October 10, 2018).

Along with ongoing campaigns by governments and mental health advocate groups such as Time to Change, MIND and Rethink are helping attitudes in society to change and see that people with mental illness are the same as everybody else.

“Labels are for jars not for people.”

Lifestyle Changes

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light”. Dumbledore in Harry Potter.

However bad we feel, we can switch on this light by making small daily changes, which can make a world of difference.


Nutrition: A well balanced diet with sufficient nutrients helps to support Mental Health. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated as the brain needs water. Keep caffeine and alcohol consumption to a minimum. Be mindful too of sugar intake as sugar highs and lows can affect mood. When you’re not feeling the best, it is important to stick to simple but healthy meals and sometimes planning ahead can be beneficial, e.g. plan before you go to bed what you are having for breakfast.

Exercises: As the saying goes “a healthy body is a healthy mind”. Studies have shown close links between mental and physical health. It doesn’t need to be anything too strenuous, even short walks are beneficial. You could set yourself a small goal of walking for five minutes and gradually increase it. You will usually find the most difficult part is leaving the house. Some people find joining a class and making a commitment, more helpful if they struggle with motivation. Whatever works for you. Exercise is particularly helpful if done in the morning, it can set you up for the day, exercising outside gives you the added benefit of your daily dose of fresh air and sunshine (sometimes!).

Rest and Relaxation: Make sure you get plenty of sleep so that your brain gets a rest. Create a good bedtime routine, if possible turn off all screens at least an hour before bed time. Have your bedroom just for sleeping, maybe read if that helps you to relax or try some meditation. Also, don’t forget your “me” time if you are very busy, even just taking 10 minutes for yourself can make a big difference.

Learning and Development: You can help improve your mental health by stretching your brain a bit to learn something new. It could be just reading an article about a topic you are interested in, or maybe signing up for a night class or an online course. There are plenty of books on personal development and self-help that could help you. Some books we recommend are Mastery by Robert Green, How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie and Discipline Equals Freedom by Jocko Willink. We also have plenty of articles which may help.

Mind and Spirituality: It is important to have some purpose and meaning in your life. This does not need to be religion, there are many other ways you can experience this. For some people it is being close to nature, a walk in the woods, a mountain hike or just a stroll in the countryside, can have great benefits. Mindfulness and meditation are currently very popular and very helpful in looking after your mind.

Relationships: People are not islands, we need others to survive and positive relationships, is a key component in our lives. Try to reach out a little to people in your life, you may be surprised at how supportive people are. If you are experiencing difficulty at work, maybe speak to a colleague that you trust. If you feel socially isolated, look for a group of people who are in a similar situation to you, e.g. stay at home mumretired or elderly, unemployed or Living away from family.


When you are experiencing mental health difficulties, the world can seem like a very dark and lonely place but things will get better.

There is always light at the end of the tunnel.”

There are lots of resources and support to help you to regain your mental health and lead a full and meaningful life. Hopefully this article along with other articles included in our mental health series can help and provide the support you may need.

In the words of Dire Straits (Brothers In Arms, 1985):

“There should be laughter after pain.”
“There should be sunshine after rain.”
“These things have always been the sam

Whatever you do be gentle with yourself and accept yourself for who you are.


Emergency Contacts;

  • NHS: Call 111
  • Sane Line: 0300304700
  • Samaritans: 116123
  • Mental Health Crisis Helpline: 00300 436 8342

Never hesitate to contact these services if you or a loved one is feeling suicidal.

Mental Health Support Groups;

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