The Independent Pharmacy

What Is Mental Health?

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 4 Jun 2024

When we talk about being healthy, we don’t just mean maintaining our physical health — we mean our mental health too. But what is mental health?

For a long time, we didn’t talk about mental health, or really understand it or recognise the importance of good or bad mental health. In fact, we’re still learning a lot about mental health as we go along and there are some things that we don’t yet know, but our understanding of mental health disorders is much clearer than it once was.

Learning more about mental health and mental health problems is important; it helps you to understand more about your own thoughts and feelings and those of the people around you.

That’s why we’ve created this guide: to give you an overview of mental health, including information, advice and support from The Independent Pharmacy.

We’ll be covering all sorts of questions you might want to ask about mental health, such as what is mental health, what is mental illness, and what is the most common mental health problem? We’ll also be including some UK mental health statistics, as well as advice for how to get help for yourself or someone else with mental health issues.

For more information about common mental health disorders, visit our ‘Mental Health Disorders’ page.

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to our cognitive, behavioural, and emotional wellbeing — how we’re thinking and feeling. Some people call mental health ‘emotional health’ or ‘wellbeing’.

Good mental health is just as important in life as good physical health. It means you can:

  • Realise your potential
  • Cope with the stresses and difficulties of life
  • Work productively
  • Play a full part in your family, friendship circles, workplace and wider community

We don’t always have good mental health. We all have times in our lives when we feel down, stressed, upset or angry. This is completely natural; your mental health can change as circumstances change, or as you come across certain stages, experiences or events in your life. The majority of the time, these feelings will pass.

Sometimes, though, these negative feelings and thoughts don’t go away. They may get worse as time goes by or they might interfere with how you live your life, making it hard to have fun or enjoy the things you would normally enjoy, or stop you from being able to do everyday tasks.

This is what we mean when we talk about ‘poor mental health’, ‘mental health problems’ or ‘mental illness’. Below, we’ll be talking about the difference between these terms.

The difference between mental health and mental illness

The terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are sometimes used interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing. However, the two are very different, and it’s important that we get this language right when we talk about mental health.

Mental health vs mental illness

As we’ve mentioned above, ‘mental health’ refers to our emotional, psychological health and wellbeing — how we think and feel. Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health.

You can have good mental health, or you can have poor mental health. Our state of mental health can change throughout our lives as we go through ups and downs. We all have times when we have low mental health — times when we feel low, stressed, upset, or overwhelmed, and we struggle to cope.

A mental illness is a condition that affects the way that people think, feel, behave, or interact with others. These are also called ‘mental health problems’ or ‘mental health disorders’. There are many different mental health disorders, and they have different symptoms that impact peoples’ lives in different ways.

Poor mental health can lead to mental illnesses; if you experience low mental health over longer periods of time, you are more likely to develop a mental health problem.

Mental illness symptoms

If you have poor mental health or mental health problems, you might not realise straight away. These changes can often be gradual and you may not notice or recognise them as signs of poor mental health.

But if you feel like the ways you're thinking, feeling or behaving in your day-to-day life are becoming difficult to cope with, this could mean you have a mental health problem.

Some early symptoms and signs of mental illness might be:

  • Being anxious and irritable
  • Feeling down, easily upset and teary
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, or empty
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling tired and having less energy
  • Withdrawing from your friends, family, and colleagues
  • Losing interest or enjoyment in activities you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Feeling restless, agitated or irritable
  • Sleeping too much or difficulty sleeping
  • Losing your appetite (or an increase in appetite)
  • Feeling confused
  • Being unable to complete normal daily tasks, such as getting to work, washing or cooking
  • Finding it difficult to control your emotions eg having a short temper
  • Excessive spending and problems managing your money
  • Drinking more or using drugs
  • Having persistent thoughts or memories that reappear regularly
  • Aggressive behaviour

If several of these signs and symptoms feel familiar, then it may be that you have poor mental health or mental illness.

What is the most common mental health problem?

Mental health problems are common: approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. One in six people in England report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week.

There are many different types of mental health problems. These can range from everyday worries and stresses as part of daily life, to serious long-term conditions and disorders.

Here are some of the most common mental health problems, according to survey results reported by Mind:

  • Mixed anxiety and depression – 7.8 in 100 people
  • Generalised anxiety disorder – 5.9 in 100 people
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – 4.4 in 100 people
  • Depression – 3.3 in 100 people
  • Phobias – 2.4 in 100 people
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – 1.3 in 100 people

As you can see, mixed anxiety and depression, anxiety, PTSD and depression are the most commonly reported mental health problems.

However, it is worth noting that these figures don’t include the number of people experiencing mental health problems in hospitals, prisons, sheltered housing or people who are homeless. As a result, these figures likely underestimate how prevalent mental health problems are.

Below are some of the most common mental health problems and disorders that people can be diagnosed with:

  • Anxiety disorders (such as generalised anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder)
  • Panic disorder (panic attacks)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Self-harm
  • Dissociation and dissociative identity disorder (DID)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

This is not an exhaustive mental health problems list; however, it will give you a rough idea of different mental health problems and disorders that exist. You can find out more about some of the more common mental health disorders on our mental health disorders page.

Mental health statistics UK

When you’re struggling with mental health problems, or think you might be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you might feel very alone and isolated.

It’s important to remember that there are millions of people around the world that suffer from poor mental health and mental illness at any one time. You’re not weird or different — there are lots of people going through very similar things to you, and there are ways you can get help and support.

Here are some mental health statistics that the Mental Health Foundation has collated to give you a better idea of the mental health situation in the UK:

  • One in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime
  • One in six people are experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week
  • Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 7.8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis
  • 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime
  • Women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders
  • Overall, men accounted for three-quarters of UK deaths by suicide in 2018

What is stigma in mental health?

Despite our growing understanding of mental health and thousands of people in the UK being affected by mental health problems, there is unfortunately still a stigma attached to mental health problems.

This means that people feel uncomfortable about mental health issues and don’t talk about them much. Lots of people don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings and many of us struggle to discuss mental health problems, even with people we are close to and trust. We’re much more likely to talk about a physical ailment than a mental health problem that we are facing.

This social stigma around mental health issues and disorders means that it can be harder for people to feel like they can get help and to seek support. Mental health stigma and discrimination can also make problems worse and make it harder to recover. This can include responses and attitudes from friends, families, and employers.

It’s important to remember that it is healthy to know, acknowledge and say how you’re feeling. Mental health problems can happen to any one of us at any time.

If you are seeking (or planning to seek) help for poor mental health, then your care providers should be able to help you with how to deal with mental health stigma.

There are also campaigns that are working to change public attitudes to mental illness, including the national voluntary sector campaign, Time to Change. They provide some really helpful information and advice about ending mental health discrimination and starting meaningful mental health conversations.

Mental health help - how to get help for someone with mental health issues in the UK

It can be hard to know what to do or where to go when it comes to mental health help, whether you’re trying to find out how to get mental health help for yourself or want to find out more about how to support someone with mental health problems.

The information below focuses on three different aspects of mental health help: how to get mental health help for yourself; how to get help for someone with mental health issues, and what to do when someone mentally ill doesn’t want help.

How to get mental health help for yourself

Seeking help is the first step towards getting better and staying well, but it’s not always easy to know where to start or who to turn to, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

It's important to remember that there are lots of places you can find help: you're not alone and there is support out there for you.

If you’ve been experiencing some of the symptoms of poor mental health that we mentioned above, then there are a few options for you to get help:

  • Your doctor: GPs are there to help you with your mental health as well as your physical health. They can help to make a diagnosis, offer you support and treatments (such as talking therapies or medication), recommend local support options or refer you to a mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist.
  • A trained therapist: trained therapists and counsellors can provide a range of different therapies through the NHS. Your doctor might need to refer you, or you can find a therapist directly.
  • Charity and third sector organisations: there are lots of national and local charities which offer various mental health support services such as helplines, listening services, online services, information, peer support, talking therapies, crisis care and more. Your GP might suggest some organisations, but we’ve included some helpful links to mental health resources and organisations at the bottom of this article.
  • Workplace support: Some workplaces offer free wellbeing and mental health support. To find out what support there is, ask your manager or HR representative.

How to get help for someone with mental health issues

If you’re wondering how to help a friend or loved one with poor mental health, you can often feel helpless or out of your depth. However, there are some ways that you can be there to support someone and help with mental health problems without any special training:

  • Reaching out: letting them know you care, and that you are there to support them will mean a lot to someone with poor mental health.
  • Listening: giving someone with mental health worries the time and space to talk can be really helpful. Ask open questions, and try not to jump in with your own ideas about how the other person may be feeling or offer a solution.
  • Be patient and calm: it’s important to be patient with people with mental health issues. It can be frustrating or upsetting if you want things to move faster or think that you know what will make the situation better, but they need to set their own pace and seek support on their own terms.
  • Reassure them: it can be scary to ask for help if you have mental health problems. Treat your friend or family member with respect and kindness, and reassure them that they are not alone
  • Help them access mental health services and information: helping that person with information research, writing down a list of questions that they want to ask their doctor, offering lifts and going with them to appointments (even if you just sit in the waiting room) can all help a lot.

Friends and family can be important influences when it comes to helping someone get the treatment and services they need for a mental health problem. You’re already doing a great job by reading up about mental health and thinking about ways you can support them.

How to help someone with mental illness who doesn't want help

If you feel that someone you care about is struggling with mental illness but can't or won't reach out for help, then it can be very hard. It's understandable in these circumstances to feel frustrated, upset, distressed and powerless.

Unfortunately, there are limits to what you can do to support someone else, especially if they don’t want help or aren’t ready. You can’t force someone to talk to you or to get help.

There may be times when the person you’re worried about needs to seek help more urgently. This could be if:

  • They have harmed themselves and need medical attention
  • They are having suicidal feelings and you feel like there is a danger they may act on them
  • They are putting themselves or someone else at immediate and serious risk of harm

In a situation where you are worried about that person’s safety, stay with them and call 999 for an ambulance, or help them get to A&E. If you don’t feel like you are able to do so, then speak to someone you trust to help or call Samaritans.

If you feel like you are in danger personally or that others are at risk, you can dial 999 and ask for the police to help.

What is the Mental Health Act?

In most cases, people who seek mental health help in hospital or other facilities have agreed to be there.

But in very rare circumstances, it's possible to keep a person in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act and treat them without their agreement. This is often referred to as ‘being sectioned’.

The decision to section someone is very serious, and it can only be taken by a team of approved mental health professionals.


Mental health refers to how we think and feel: our psychological, behavioural, and emotional wellbeing. Mental health is sometimes called ‘emotional health’ or ‘wellbeing’. We all have mental health, in the same way that we all have physical health.

We don’t always have good mental health; sometimes our mental health can be low or poor, and we feel down, stressed, upset or angry. This is completely natural and most of the time, these feelings will pass.

If your feelings become difficult to cope with, last for a long time and impact your daily life, this could mean you have a mental health problem — also known as a mental illness or mental health disorder. A mental illness is a condition that affects the way that people think, feel, behave, or interact with others.

Mental health problems are very common; there are many different mental illnesses which impact peoples’ lives in different ways.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, it can be hard to know what to do or where to go. However, there is a lot of help and support out there for people who do need it. Why not take a look at our dedicated guide on 'How To Improve Mental Health' for more information.


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