Mental health problems are very common. In a single week, at least one in six of us has problems with our mental health, according to the government’s major study of adults in England.
What are mental health problems?
Mental Health problems are difficult experiences that make it harder for us to get on with our lives. They include the painful feelings and thoughts that we all have at times – including periods of sadness, hopelessness and fear.
Mental health problems are not a weakness – they are just responses to what is happening, and what has happened, to us and around us.
For example, we might feel tense, worried and afraid – a common experience often described as ‘anxiety’. This might affect our sleep, eating, work, studies and dealings with people in our lives, as well as alcohol and drug use. Other people might not know how we’re feeling, unless we tell them.
Getting support from other people, and looking after our mental health, can help us get past problems like this and prevent them becoming more serious or long-term. Changing our lives to tackle the causes of our distress will also help – if this is possible. Most people who have problems with their mental health can get over them or learn to live with them, especially if they get help early on.
Some mental health problems cause us more serious distress and problems with our lives, and may continue for years. For instance, hearing and seeing things that others can’t see, or believing that other people are out to get us, can cause conflicts with other people. As a result, we may lose jobs, friends, children, housing and even our liberty and lives.
Diagnosing mental health problems: pros and cons
Mental health problems are not like cancer or heart disease, where scientific tests can reveal what is wrong. With mental health problems, it’s our painful feelings and thoughts, and their effects on our lives, that are the difficulty. There’s no ‘hidden’ part that only experts understand.
This may seem confusing, because people who work in mental health often use medical terms such as ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, ‘bipolar’ and ‘bulimia’ to diagnose people’s problems with their mental health. According to this view, getting the diagnosis right helps to get the treatment right.
Some people find it helps them to have a mental health diagnosis. It can come as a relief and help them understand and accept themselves – and also help others to do so. In addition, a diagnosis can help with getting benefits, support at work or with studies and treatment from health professionals.
Other people feel harmed by diagnosis. They feel worse about themselves as a result of the label they’ve been given, or fear it will make others wary of them – potential employers, friends, partners and mental health professionals, for instance.
More than a diagnosis
There is much concern that people with a mental health diagnosis are too often seen as no more their diagnosis, rather than as a whole, living person who changes as their live unfolds. This can have a profoundly harmful effect on their quality of life.
It’s worth remembering that a mental health diagnosis is no more than a health professional’s opinion about the experiences another person is having. Another professional might have a different opinion.
Diagnoses also change with society. Until the early 1970s, for instance, psychiatrists ruled that being gay was a ‘mental illness’. Eventually, campaigners (including some psychiatrists) persuaded the influential American Psychiatric Association to change its view. Overnight, millions of people were ’cured’.
Despite the controversy around mental health diagnoses, medical terms remain the most common way to describe problems mental health.