Prevention and mental health

Prevention is an important approach to improving mental health. It means stopping mental health problems from developing, getting worse or coming back.

*Last updated: 4 October 2021

There are lots of factors that influence our mental health, such as our personal history (our family, relationships and how we see ourselves) and our social circumstances (including our housing, employment and education).

While it isn’t possible to stop all mental ill-health from developing, many mental health problems can be prevented with the right approach.

What does prevention mean?

Prevention can help all of us, whether we currently have good mental health or not. We all have mental health that changes depending on what’s happening in our lives.

There are three types of prevention.

Primary prevention: stopping mental health problems before they start

This focuses on stopping people from developing mental health problems and promoting good mental health for all. It often targets and benefits everyone in a community. Examples include anti-stigma campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week or teaching school children about emotions and mental ill health.

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

This focuses on supporting people who are more likely to develop mental health problems, either because of characteristics they were born with or experiences they’ve had. It includes LGBTIQ+ people (because they have a higher chance of being bullied), people who have experienced trauma, people with a long-term physical health condition and victims of hate crimes, for example.

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

This helps people with mental ill-health stay well and have a good quality of life.

It aims to reduce people’s symptoms, empower them to manage their own wellbeing and reduce the risk of relapse.

How can I take preventative measures to help myself?

There are things we can all do to take care of ourselves and those around us. Prevention will mean different things to different people, depending on our past experiences and current circumstances.

I currently have good mental health.

Here are some ways people have found to stay mentally well.

  • Talk about your feelings. Just being listened to can help you feel supported and less alone with any problems you’re going through.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep and mental health are closely linked: mental ill-health can affect your sleep and poor sleep can affect your mental wellbeing.
  • Eat well. A balanced diet can improve your sense of wellbeing and your mood.
  • Stay active. Physical activity is not only good for your body, it’s also great for your mind.
  • Practice mindfulness, a way to be fully engaged and present in the moment.
  • Keep in touch. Supportive friends can help you deal with the stresses of life, make you feel cared for and offer a different view from whatever’s going on in your head.
  • Care for others, whether that’s working on relationships with family, letting go of old grudges or volunteering.

Our guide How to look after your mental health has more ideas.

I am at higher risk of experiencing mental health problems.

Various factors can increase your risk of developing a mental health problem. It’s important to note that none of them mean you will definitely experience mental ill-health. Our mental health is complex and there isn’t any way of predicting which factors will or won’t affect our wellbeing.

Our mental health is shaped by our:

  • biology: our genes play a small role in our mental health
  • environment: the places we live and work, and our relationships
  • experiences: the things that happen to us, especially in early life.

If you’re at higher risk, staying well may look like following the tips above for people who are in good mental health. Or it may mean, for example, getting help from a counsellor to overcome issues from a difficult childhood, finding support if you’ve experienced a hate crime or talking to your GP to better understand a physical health condition.

Our A-Z has more information on factors that can affect your mental health including stress, poor housing and long-term physical conditions.

I have a mental health condition.

Getting informed is often a good starting point to understanding and feeling empowered about managing your condition. Our A-Z has information on a range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and eating disorders.

The right support for you will depend on your condition, how it affects you, the severity of your symptoms and your circumstances. As well as the tips above, you may want to try peer support, talking therapy, medication and/or self-management.

What changes can society make to prevent mental health problems?

It’s not just individual changes that will help us stay well. We need to make an effort as a society to tackle inequalities and look at the social, economic, environmental and other factors affecting mental health.

Our report on prevention and mental health looks at the societal changes that will make the biggest difference to everyone’s mental health, namely:

  • helping parents to nurture their children
  • protecting children from trauma
  • educating young people to understand and manage their emotions
  • supporting people under a lot of stress at work
  • reducing loneliness for older people
  • building connections in our communities
  • caring for people with suicidal thoughts
  • helping people to recover and look after themselves.

Further information and resources

The Mental Health Foundation is focused on the prevention of mental health problems and supporting good mental health for all. We have a podcast, blog series and 2019 report on prevention.