Prevention and mental health

Preventing the onset of mental health problems before they occur, and supporting people to stay well, is an important approach to improving mental health in our communities.

In England, around one in six adults met criteria for a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression, and one in eight 5-19-year-olds met criteria for a mental health problem.1,2

What are mental health problems?

How does prevention link to mental health?

Mental health prevention, or ‘public mental health’, is often used to refer to efforts to stop mental health problems before they emerge. However, it's important to note that it can also be used to refer to work that supports people with and without mental health problems to stay well.

There are several different types of preventative approaches, which can be applied together to enable communities to protect everyone as well as give targeted support to those most at-risk. The different kinds of prevention approaches can be defined as3,4

Primary prevention: stopping mental health problems before they start

Stopping mental health problems before they occur and promoting good mental health for all. Often primary prevention work is ‘universal’ in that it targets and benefits everyone in a community, for example anti-stigma campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week or mental health literacy programmes.

Secondary prevention: supporting those at higher risk of experiencing mental health problems

Supporting those at higher risk of mental health problems (either because of biological characteristics they are born with or experiences they have had) by providing targeted help and support. This type of prevention is often called “selective” or “targeted” prevention. Examples include programmes which support those who have experienced trauma or been victims of hate crime.

Tertiary prevention: helping people living with mental health problems to stay well

Supporting those with mental health problems to stay well and have a good quality of life. These types of programmes often focus on those already affected by mental health problems and can aim to reduce symptoms that can be disabling, limit complications, and empower people experiencing problems to manage their own symptoms as much as possible. Tertiary prevention is seen as distinct, but complementary to treatment for mental health problems and is often carried out in community, rather than clinical, settings.

Further information and resources

The Mental Health Foundation is focused on the prevention of mental health problems and supporting good mental health for all. Further information about mental health prevention can be found on our website here:

This page was last updated on 30/04/2019


  1. McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2014). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014: Executive Summary. Retrieved from:
  2. NHS Digital. (2018). Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017: Summary of key findings. Retrieved from:
  3. World Health Organisation. (2004). Prevention of mental disorders effective interventions and policy options: Summary report. Geneva. Retrieved from:
  4. O'Connell, M. E., Boat, T., Warner, K. E., & National Research Council. (2009). Defining the scope of prevention. In Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. National Academies Press (US).