Mental Health problems explained

Mental Health problems explained

Many of us are familiar with the term ‘mental health problems’, but actually understanding what this means can be a different matter.

In this section we have provided information on common mental health problems.


Self-harm is when a person inflicts pain or injuries upon themselves to feel release from stress and pressure that they are experiencing. Self-harm is always a sign of emotional distress, and can be carried out for a variety of reasons.

For some, self-harm provides a means to cope with overwhelming emotions such as feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. For others, self-harm is a way to exert control over themselves which can result in a sense of comfort. Self-harming can start at any age and can take many forms including:

  • bone breaking
  • burning parts of the body (both heat and cold burns)
  • cutting/slashing parts of the body
  • inflicting bruises
  • overdose
  • picking/scratching the skin
  • poisioning
  • pulling hair out
  • restriction of blood flow using ligatures
  • wound interference to prevent healing

Common causes for self-harming could be:

  • abuse
  • bereavement
  • bullying
  • exam stress
  • financial worries

While self-harm is ultimately damaging and may be dangerous, for some people it provides a method of coping with life. Taking away a person’s means of self-harm can increase their emotional distress and ultimately make the situation worse.

If you know someone with depression and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them. There are a number of self-help groups and voluntary sector self-harm projects that can help.


Schizophrenia is a complex mental health problem which can manifest itself in a number of ways and affect a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

The reasons for developing Schizophrenia are unknown, although a range of different factors such as stress, genetic links and drug abuse have been shown to increase the risk of developing it. Although schizophrenia affects people in different ways, there are recognised signs and symptoms that people may experience, for example:

  • The person may experience hallucinations which involves hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling or tasting something that does not exist. The most common of these is hearing voices.
  • Schizophrenia can affect people by making them quiet, distracted or disinterested. Others are the opposite and they can be restless, agitated or very nervous.
  • Another prevalent factor is that the person can find it extremely difficult to focus on things or concentrate for long.
  • People can also suffer from delusions, where their thoughts are irrational or false and they believe that others are out to get them or control them.
  • There are also people who are paranoid and think that events and happenings are a result of people out to get them and harm them.

There is a misconception that people with schizophrenia can be aggressive, violent and dangerous. The truth is that people with mental health problems are more likely to become a victim of violence than carry out a violent act themselves.

Schizophrenia is commonly treated with the prescription of medication to reduce its symptoms. With careful use and additional support, most people find that medication helps their recovery. Counselling and a range of therapies can also be used and indeed can help people confused and scared about what is happening to them.

If you know someone with schizophrenia and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.


Depression is a mental health problem that can affect people without them realising that something is wrong. While everyone feels “down in the dumps”, sad and/or low at points in their lives, this should not be confused with depression which is where these feelings are severe and long lasting.

Depression is one of the most widely experienced mental health problems. Most people know someone who has experienced depression. Symptoms of depression can include:

  • lack of energy and concentration
  • feeling low, sad
  • loss/increase of appetite
  • lack of feelings
  • feeling worthless
  • tiredness and/or sleeping a lot
  • insomnia
  • feeling distant/isolated from people
  • losing interest in their appearance
  • aches and pains

Depression is becoming increasingly common, though the cause of depression is unknown. Significant life events are believed to trigger depression in some people, for example bereavement or redundancy. Hormonal changes, such as around pregnancy or the menopause can also contribute to depression. There are different types of depression, these are:

  • mild to moderate depression
  • clinical depression (a more severe depressive illness)
  • postnatal depression
  • manic depression or bi-polar disorder (severe depression accompanied by mood swings known as highs and lows.)
  • seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD

There are many treatments for depression that range from medication to complementary therapies to talking therapy. It’s often a combination of support that helps people in their recovery.

If you know someone with depression and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.


Phobias are described as extreme or irrational fears of an object, animal or situation that can range from a general negative outlook dislike to avoiding coming into contact with the source at all costs. A phobia can greatly disrupt a person’s life because this avoidance becomes a safety net for them. There are a great many different phobias but the most common ones are:

  • agoraphobia (Fear of public/open/ crowded spaces, feeling trapped)
  • claustrophobia (Fear of enclosed/crowded spaces)
  • social phobia (Fear of a situation/event/being the focus of attention)
  • specific phobia (Fear of an animal/insect/object/occurrence)

When people with phobias face their fear they can experience feelings that range from mild anxiety to panic attacks. They will feel a range of sensations that are produced purely as a result of their fear. These symptoms can include:

  • cold sweats
  • dizziness
  • fear of dying
  • fear of losing control
  • feeling and/or being sick
  • hot flushes
  • over-breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • shaking

The severity of the symptoms can vary. People who frequently experience the symptoms outlined above may be suffering from panic attacks. Usually, when the person removes themselves from the fear these symptoms go away. Ironically, this approach can perpetuate the phobia as by removing yourself from the object/event the feelings dissipate, but this does not confront the root cause of the phobia itself.

Phobias are more frequently being treated with talking therapies although people with severe phobias can be prescribed medication too. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help people with phobias and anxiety by changing the way that they think about that fear to help alleviate the negative feelings.

If you know someone with a phobia and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

Eating disorders

Most people at some point feel that they need to lose some weight and consider starting a diet. When these feelings become so strong that they dominate a person’s life, they may be developing an eating disorder.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, although they most commonly occur in young women between the ages of 15 – 25. Eating disorders can start at any time and for a variety of reasons such as stress, low self-esteem or emotional problems. An eating disorder can leave a person with very low self-esteem and a distorted body image. There are three common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – where a person avoids eating to lose a lot of weight
  • Bulimia Nervosa – where a person eats large amounts of food in ‘binges’ and then ‘purges’ by taking laxatives or making themselves sick
  • Binge Eating Disorder – where a person eats large amounts of food when they are not hungry

It is important to remember that the lines between eating disorders are often blurred and that many people exhibit mixed symptoms without meeting a precise definition.

Treatment for eating disorders can take many forms including inpatient and outpatient hospital treatment, treatment from GPs and support in the community. Other professionals like dieticians and occupational therapists may form part of a care team, and people can find self-help groups useful too.

Recovery from eating disorders can take a long time, and it is common for people to experience setbacks before achieving a full recovery. However, many people do recover completely.

If you know someone with an eating disorder and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

Bipolar disorder

The terms ‘manic depression’ and ‘bipolar disorder’ refer to the same mental health problem which involves extreme mood swings (highs and lows).

A person with manic depression can experience severe bouts of depression and feel extremely low to becoming feeling very high, excited and very elated within a short space of time. The symptoms can alternate between the two extremes and this can be very frightening and distressing for the individual concerned.

It is difficult to determine the cause of bipolar disorder though some evidence suggests that a genetic link may exist. As yet, there has been no conclusion as to which genes might be responsible. When someone experiences a manic episode (also known as a high), they can display behaviour that may seem out of character. They can:

  • be elated or very excited
  • have racing thoughts
  • experience lack of concentration
  • find it difficult to sleep
  • have unrealistic ideas

When someone has a depressive episode (also known as a low) they can be very down and disinterested in what is going on around them. They can:

  • feel tired all the time
  • have little or no appetite or overeating
  • experience insomnia or oversleeping
  • experience loss of libido
  • feel that they are worthless and unable to cope

Treatment for bipolar disorder commonly includes medication such as mood stabilisers like Lithium or antidepressants, and a range of talking therapies. Techniques that help people monitor their moods and recognise triggers for highs and lows have also proven to help some people. It is important to work with healthcare professionals to find a combination of treatment that works well for each individual.

If you know someone with bipolar disorder and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

Personality disorder

Personality disorder can cover a wide range of conditions. There are around ten types of personality disorder and they are listed below:

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Avoidant Personality Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Dependant Personality Disorder
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder
  • Impulsive Personality Disorder
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder
  • Schizoid Personality Disorder
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder

While the symptoms of the disorders above are difference, there are general characteristics of each condition such as:

  • agitation
  • nervousness
  • fear
  • feeling suspicious
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • lack of emotion
  • aggression
  • alcohol or substance abuse
  • self harm
  • eating disorders

There is no clear diagnostic test for personality disorder. Diagnosis is usually based upon consultation with a psychiatrist who is satisfied that the person displays a number of symptoms associated with a personality disorder. They look for traits that are also evident in the person that are recognisable as being associated with personality disorder.

The treatment for personality disorder is usually a combination of therapies and medication. Antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilisers can be prescribed as well as therapies such as: cognitive analytical therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and dynamic psychotherapy.

If you know someone with a personality disorder and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.


Stress is a part of every day life, we need an element of stress in our lives to function and ‘get things done’.

However, we can experience too much stress due to factors and influences in our lives. Stress can be experienced when driving, looking after children, at work and we tend to notice it and even comment that we are “stressed out”. When stress is enduring and constant it can become more serious and physical illness can develop. The symptoms of stress can include:

  • feeling uptight
  • tense muscles
  • headaches
  • indigestion
  • aches and pains
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • short temper and/or anger
  • feelings of depression and/or being unable to cope

When a person is under stress, it is important to identify the cause and then take steps to address it. There are a number of ways that can help to alleviate the symptoms of stress. Common methods of reducing stress are using relaxation techniques, taking some exercise, or talking to a friend, colleague or family member about the cause of stress.

If stress starts to affect your life in a severe way, you should contact your GP. You may be offered short-term medication or be referred for counselling. GPs would probably check that there is no physical illness present that could be confused with stress.

If you know someone who self-harms and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is the name given to an anxiety disorder in which people experience repetitive and upsetting thoughts and/or behaviours – usually both. OCD has two main features, obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are involuntary thoughts, images or impulses which commonly include irrational fear around contamination, fear of causing harm to self or others, hypochondria and unusual concern with arrangement, order and symmetry.

Compulsions are repetitive actions that a person feels the need to carry out, for example checking, washing and hoarding of items. A person can also experience ‘cognitive compulsions’ which involve mental counting or silently repeating a string of words.

People with OCD are aware that their obsessions and compulsions don’t make sense, they are however compelled to carry them out. OCD can be very debilitating and if left untreated, can take over a person’s life. It’s often a long-term relapsing problem that can take years of treatment and support to overcome.

OCD often goes undiagnosed due an individual’s embarrassment over symptoms of the condition. Effective treatments include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and antidepressants, used alone or in combination with each other. Recovery from OCD can sometimes be a long and difficult process. However most people can do recover and manage their obsessions and compulsions while leading a fulfilling life.

If you know someone with OCD and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

Post Natal Depression

Postnatal depression (PND) is a serious clinical condition that usually starts soon after the birth of a baby but can occur in the months following the birth. It is important to distinguish between PND and ‘baby blues’, which is a brief episode of tearfulness that affects at least half of all women following delivery, especially those having their first baby.

The symptoms of PND are varied. Some women may feel tearful and experience symptoms of depression, while others can experience feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness which if left untreated could result in the mother losing interest in her baby. In extreme cases it can lead to the woman having to go into hospital for treatment.

No one knows exactly what causes PND but it is commonly believed to be related to the hormonal changes that a woman goes through during pregnancy. It could be both a combination of this and other factors such as social circumstances, family responsibilities etc. It can happen suddenly or at a slow pace, gradually building up until something brings the illness out into the open. The woman may not recognise that she has an illness.

It can be frightening to experience PND. Many feel that it should be a happy time, but because of these confusing feelings, the illness can become more prominent causing feelings of failure, because suddenly that person isn’t coping.

PND is a treatable condition and it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible. Treatments available include a range of therapies, anti depressants, counselling and alternative therapies. A GP or health advisor will advise upon the most suitable approach.

Recovery from PND can take time, and depends on the person and the severity of the condition. Self help or support groups can be useful as talking to someone who knows what you are going through is a great help. It is also helpful to talk to others who have shared this experience.

If you know someone with PND and want to help them, first and foremost take them and their concerns seriously and be patient with them.

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