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
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:
- Mental Health Foundation Podcast on mental ill-health prevention
- Mental Health Foundation blog series on prevention
- Mental Health Foundation’s 2016 Report: A public health approach to mental health improvement
This page was last updated on 30/04/2019
- McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2014). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey-survey-of-mental-health-and-wellbeing-england-2014
- NHS Digital. (2018). Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017: Summary of key findings. Retrieved from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017
- World Health Organisation. (2004). Prevention of mental disorders effective interventions and policy options: Summary report. Geneva. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/en/prevention_of_mental_disorders_sr.pdf
- 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).