What is mental health?

Mental health is the way we think and feel and our ability to deal with the ups and downs of everyday life

Mental health is something we all have and includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. When we think about our physical health, there’s a place for keeping ourselves fit and a place for getting the right help when needed, as early as possible, so we can get better. Mental health is just the same.

Your mental health affects how you think, feel and act. It determines how we handle everyday factors such as work and stress. It also affects how we relate to others and make choices.

When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives.

Having good mental health can also mean you will have:

  • clearer thinking
  • reduced anxiety
  • improved mood
  • increased self-esteem – so you can make the most of your potential
  • reduced risk of depression
  • improvements in relationships – so you can play a full part in your relationships, your workplace, and your community.

What are mental health problems?

We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. Most of the time these feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem like anxiety or depression, which can impact on our daily lives.

For some people, mental health problems become complex, and require support and treatment for life.

Factors in our lives such as finances, genetics, family/childhood trauma, discrimination or ongoing physical illness make it more likely that we will develop mental health problems, but it’s important to realise that mental health problems can happen to anybody, at any time in their lives.

Different mental health problems affect people in different ways and it’s important to understand an individual’s experience.

Diagnosis is not a definite way to understand a person’s experience. Some people with schizophrenia, for example, live pretty much ordinary lives, while some people with anxiety can be severely impacted by their condition.

How do I recognise a mental health problem?

If we have significant challenges in our home or work life, the chances are that it will have an impact on our mental health.

Mental health problems can have a lot of different symptoms and signs.

You should seek help from your GP practice if you have difficult feelings that are:

  • stopping you from getting on with life
  • having a big impact on the people you live or work with
  • affecting your mood over several weeks
  • causing you to have thoughts of suicide.

At work, we might notice that we are more tired than usual and make uncharacteristic mistakes, find it hard to motivate ourselves, our timekeeping might slip or we may become short tempered.

We might look or feel very tired or drained. We might find we isolate ourselves, avoid colleagues or appear distracted. We might procrastinate more – or grind to a halt altogether. Or we might speed up or become chaotic, intruding into others’ conversations and work, and taking on more work than we can manage.

It can be difficult to see these early warning signs in ourselves, and it can help to have colleagues who can help us connect this to our mental health.

If things progress, you might see more obvious signs of a mental health problem in a colleague – outbursts of anger or emotion, absences from work, or not looking after their appearance as they normally would. You may see signs that they have been sleeping less or perhaps drinking more in the evening.

Stress vs distress

Your mental health doesn’t always stay the same; it can fluctuate as circumstances change and as you move through different stages in your life. Such changes can cause feelings of STRESS or DISTRESS.

Both stress and distress can have a negative effect, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope.


Stress is our body’s response to physical, mental or emotional pressures. There are many reasons why a person can become stressed. It is often triggered when we experience a situation that we feel we cannot control or have little control over, but sometimes there’s no obvious cause. When a person encounters stress, their body produces stress hormones that triggers a response. Sometimes this stress response can be useful as it helps you navigate through challenging situations, very much like the ‘fight or flight’ response.


Distress refers to when a person isn’t coping, for whatever reason. It could be something at home, the pressure of work or the start of a mental health problem like depression. When we feel distressed, we need a compassionate, human response. The earlier we are able to recognise when something isn’t quite right, the earlier we can get support.

Why don’t people talk about mental health?

Awareness of mental health is increasing, but we still live in a world where people with mental health problems can face discrimination and challenges getting the help they need. Many people who experience distress quite often try to hide their feelings because they are afraid of the response from others.

Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, making it much easier for them to reach out for help when they need it.

Having said that, the decision to disclose personal problems at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe being themselves.

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