What is mental health?
We’ve all read about it. We all talk about it. But what is mental health exactly?
Mental health is something that’s taken far more seriously these days than it used to be. The World Health Organization says it’s an integral part of health – indeed, it says, there is no health without mental health (i).
Mental health incorporates your emotional, social and psychological wellbeing, affecting how you act, think and feel. The WHO defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which you can realise your own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and can make a contribution to your community (i). In other words, having good mental health doesn’t just mean you don’t have a mental health problem.
Mental health – just like physical health – can change too. You may be mentally well today, but things may not be the same in the future. But if you look after your mental health, it can help you get so much more out of life.
How many people suffer from mental health?
Mental health problems are common, says the mental health charity Mind (ii):
One in four people in England experiences some kind of mental health problem each year.
One in six people is affected by a common health problem – such as anxiety or depression (or both) – in any given week in England.
Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem in England (in any given week eight in 100 people are affected), followed by generalised anxiety disorder (six in 100), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (four in 100), depression (3 in 100), phobias (2 in 100), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (1 in 100) and panic disorder (fewer than 1 in 100).
One in five people have suicidal thoughts at some point during their life.
One in 14 people self-harms.
How does mental health affect?
LGBTIQ+ people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to have a mental health problem in England.
More Black or Black British people experience mental health problems than White British people (23 per cent compared with 17 per cent).
Only one in eight adults with a mental health problem is currently getting medical help and treatment for their condition.
Stress and mental health
Meanwhile stress plays a significant role in mental health problems. According to the Mental Health Foundation (iii):
During the past year 74 per cent of people in the UK felt overwhelmed or unable to cope because they felt so stressed.
Stress causes depression in 51 per cent and anxiety in 61 per cent of adults.
More than four out of 10 people who are stressed eat too much or eat unhealthily, while almost three in 10 start drinking alcohol or drink more because of stress. Some also start smoking or smoke more because of stress (16 per cent).
But mental ill health isn’t just a problem here in the UK. Across the world, mental health problems are one of the main causes of ill health, with major depression considered the second leading cause of disability worldwide (iii).
To find out more about mental health problems, read our guide to the different types of mental health conditions.
NHS mental health services
If you think you may have a problem with your mental health, it’s really important to get some help and support as early as possible. For most of us it can be difficult to know who to turn to. But in most cases the best way to start is to see a GP.
Your GP can give you advice on what lifestyle changes you could make to improve your mental health, as well as recommend treatments including prescription medication. They can also refer you to a free NHS mental health service for further support and treatment. These services tend to be provided by hospitals, mental health clinics, large local health centres and even some GP surgeries. Usually you’ll be able to choose which service you want to use for your first appointment.
If you’re seeing your GP for a mental health issue for the first time, it’s a good idea to make some notes about the things you want to talk about and any questions you may have. Take your notes to your appointment, and try to make sure you cover everything. Most importantly, don’t be embarrassed to ask your doctor to explain anything you don’t understand. You could also take someone you trust to your appointment with you for extra support.
Mental health services available
There are a number of different mental health services available that specialise in different areas of emotional wellbeing. These include:
NHS urgent mental health helplines Only available in England, these are 24-hour advice and support lines where you can get help with speaking to a mental health professional or have an immediate mental health assessment. To find the number of your local NHS urgent mental health helpline, visit nhs.uk.
NHS psychological therapies service (IATP) This is offered in England to those aged 18 or older who are registered with a GP, and includes talking therapies such as counselling, guided self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It aims to treat a variety of common mental health problems, including depression, generalised anxiety, social anxiety, panic, phobias, OCD, PTSD and body dysmorphic disorder. You may also be able to refer yourself to an IAPT service without seeing your GP beforehand – find out more by visiting NHS.uk.
Alcohol addiction service
Drug misuse service
Eating disorder support
You can find your nearest mental health service online by visiting NHS.uk. Most NHS mental health services have waiting lists, so you may have to wait a while for your appointment. The longest you should have to wait is 18 weeks, which is the maximum waiting time for all consultant-led mental health services.
If however you need immediate help and you’re not sure what to do, call 111 or call 999 if it’s an emergency.
How to access mental health services
There are lots of different options for support available in the UK besides the services offered by the NHS. You may, for instance, be able to pay privately for therapy or counselling – if so, you can contact therapists directly through one of the following:
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
The British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) (practitioners registered with the BABCP specialise in cognitive behavioural therapy)
The British Psychological Society (BPS)
The Counselling Directory
The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
Pink therapy (therapists with LGBTQ+ experience)
Not everyone can afford private therapy, but most of us have family, friends or neighbours who we could talk to about how we’re feeling – which could be very helpful if you’re stuck on a waiting list for free NHS therapy.
According to Mind, the people closest to us can often be a valuable source of support (iv). They may, for instance, help you to find information and choose options that might work for you. It can also be helpful to have someone you know and trust with you when you attend mental health service appointments. Friends and family can also help with things you have to do every day that have started to overwhelm you, or just give you general encouragement.
However opening up to friends and family isn’t for everyone, and you may find it easier to confide in a health professional rather than someone you know.
How to support emotional wellbeing
Staying as physically healthy as possible isn’t always easy if you’re experiencing issues with your mental being. However, nutritional supplements can be useful in many situations. For instance, taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement can help make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs whenever you’re not eating as healthily as you should. There’s even some evidence that taking a multivitamin may help you cope with stressful situations more effectively (v).
Other nutritional supplements may also help you to cope with a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, stress, low mood and depression.
High-strength fish oils
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in oily fish have been studied extensively in relation to a range of different health problems, including the symptoms of depression.
One study involving older women suffering from depression discovered that, after taking high doses of EPA and DHA for eight weeks, their symptoms had improved significantly compared to other women who received a placebo (vi). Other studies have looked at the benefits of EPA in treating depression, with some suggesting it may be helpful (vii).
Scientists elsewhere have found omega-3s help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may help your body cope with the effects of stress more effectively (viii). You can even benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, since supplements containing omega-3s sourced from marine algae are more widely available these days.
Vitamin D is widely acknowledged as important for your bones, muscles and teeth, as well as your immune system. But in more recent years researchers have discovered it could be important for your mental health too. Low levels of vitamin D may, for instance, be linked with depression in adults, concludes one review of 13 studies (ix). Another study of 290 psychiatric patients found 272 of them tested positive for vitamin D inadequacy or deficiency (x).
Many people in this and other northern hemisphere countries are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, which is why the UK government advises that everyone considers taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter (xi). Meanwhile people who are also at high risk of not getting enough vitamin D during the spring and summer are advised to take vitamin D all year round.
If you’re considering taking a vitamin D supplement the recommended form is vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), as this is the natural form of vitamin D our bodies make when we’re exposed to sunlight. You can get these in tablet form as well as in veggie-friendly drops. Most vitamin D3 supplements aren’t suitable for vegans, however, since they’re made from the fat of lamb’s wool. But the good news is you can get vegan vitamin D3 supplements available these days that are sourced from lichen.
B vitamins are essential for your overall health, but they may also be useful for combatting stress. One review of clinical trials found B vitamins may have benefits for both healthy people and those who have a high risk for problems caused by stress (xii). You can take individual B vitamin supplements, but a good-quality B complex formulation should provide all the Bs you need (and it’s much more convenient).
This herb has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of mild anxiety as well as sleep problems – which can often go hand-in-hand with mental health difficulties. Studies suggest it may well be helpful if you’re not getting much good-quality sleep (xiii).
St John’s wort
This popular herbal remedy is used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. There’s evidence, for instance, it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (xiv), with other studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (xv).
However if you’re taking anything else please be aware that St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines. For instance, one of the common medicines St John’s Wort is thought to affect is the contraceptive pill, so always consult your GP before taking it.
Low levels of magnesium are often thought to be linked with an inability to deal with stress. One study has found people experiencing both mental and physical stress could benefit from taking a daily magnesium supplement, as it may help relieve symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, lack of concentration, sleep problems and depression. (xvi). Magnesium is found in a range of foods including green vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. However you can also top up your magnesium levels with a good-quality supplement – choose a form of magnesium that’s better absorbed by the body, such as magnesium citrate.
The amino acid 5-HTP – or 5-hydroxytryptophan – is often used as a remedy for depression and low mood. It’s a natural compound that’s converted in the brain to serotonin (some conventional antidepressant medicines also work by boosting your serotonin levels). Indeed, some studies suggest it may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (xvii). There’s also some evidence 5-HTP may help relieve the symptoms of anxiety disorders (xviii).
Rhodiola – a herb used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief – has roots that contain many active ingredients, including rosavin and salidroside. There is some evidence it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xix), with researchers finding it effective in people with burnout symptoms (xx). Another study concludes rhodiola may treat stress symptoms comprehensively as well as prevent chronic stress and stress-related complications (xxi).
If you want to try rhodiola, look for a supplement that guarantees a potent 3% level of rosavins.
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid that’s thought to help your brain produce calming alpha waves. Studies suggest taking a theanine supplement may help you feel more relaxed without making you drowsy (xxii), and that it may make you feel calmer by reducing your heart rate when you’re faced with something that stresses you out (xxiii).
Herbal therapists often recommend tea made with the herb lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to help with relaxation. There is, in fact, some evidence it could help reduce anxiety levels (xxiv), though existing studies aren’t particularly robust as they only include a small number of volunteers. Most people would agree, however, that having a cup of lemon balm tea is a pleasant way to relax – though you can, of course, take lemon balm in supplement form too.
This traditional Ayurvedic herb is often used to help with tiredness, fatigue and stress. One small-scale study suggests ashwagandha may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xxv), while another found 88 per cent of trial participants felt less anxious after taking it (xxvi).
Researchers believe ashwagandha may help relieve stress because of the way it moderates interaction between the hypothalamus – a small region in the brain – and the pituitary and adrenal glands (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis) (xxvii). The HPA axis is thought to play a key role in the body’s response to stress.
Dealing with a mental wellbeing problem can be difficult, but there is help available if you know how to find it. This guide aims to point you in the right direction, so you can start feeling better and more like your old self again. For more advice on managing your emotions, visit the mental health section of our health library.
(i) Available online: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
(ii) Available online: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/#References
(iii) Available online: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-stress
(iv) Available online: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/seeking-help-for-a-mental-health-problem/talking-to-friends-family/
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.