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Mental health problems

Mental illness is something diagnosed by doctors or mental health professionals.

It's when, in their opinion, you have symptoms or problems that interfere with your ability to lead a normal life. This means your ability to do the normal day-to-day things like concentrate, have healthy relationships and be able to communicate and interact with other people.

The Mental Health Foundation says: "When someone experiences severe and or lasting mental health problems they are sometimes described as mentally ill."

What's a mental health problem?

A mental health problem is when a life event, situation or problem disrupts the way we think and feel. This can either be temporary – following a sad or traumatic event, for example – or it can be more long-term.

In general, the term 'mental health problem' is used to describe a whole range of difficulties, from stresses and bereavement, phobias, anxiety disorders and eating disorders to the more serious forms of depression, and illnesses such as schizophrenia.

There can be a stigma attached to having mental health problems, which can mean that people don't want to be 'labelled' or are scared to tell other people they have problems.

Who do mental health problems affect?

A mental health problem can happen to anyone.

Experts estimate that around one in four of us will have some sort of mental health problem at some time in our lives.

It could be you

Mental illness doesn't choose particular groups of people. It can strike regardless of your age, race, colour, religion or IQ – in fact many people who experience mental illness can be incredibly intelligent and gifted.

But mental illness strikes 'the average person' even more frequently. Often a mental health problem can occur if a person experiences something traumatic – the death of a loved one, a terrible accident, sexual abuse, bullying or if someone has a very stressful family life, for example.

This sort of thing could happen to anyone; it's not the person's fault, and nor is the mental health problem which can follow.

But mental health problems can also happen even if nothing like this has happened to you. It has nothing to do with being weak, and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Not the only one

The main thing to remember is that you are not alone if you have a mental health problem. In fact, you're in pretty good company.

There are many famous people who have experienced mental health problems, including Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, Charlotte Bronte, Halle Berry, Alanis Morissette, Winston Churchill and Eric Clapton. And the list goes on – even David Beckham admits he has problems with obsessive behaviour.

But that's not to say that mental health problems are cool or trivial or something that you would want.

Mental health problems can be extremely frightening and can really affect the quality of your life if you don't get proper help. This is why it's important to know what's normal and what's not, and when it's time to seek help.

What is mental health?

'Mental health' is a sense of feeling well and having the ability to cope with obstacles and challenges in life.

Mental health 'problems' or 'difficulties' are terms used to describe (often temporary) reactions to a traumatic event, chronic stress or illness, or street drug or alcohol abuse.

The terms are also used for serious psychiatric conditions which significantly affect their ability to function and can be long-term.

The mental health spectrum

Problems can range from mild anxiety or stresses in everyday life, which are difficult but can be managed, to problems which are so severe that they affect the person's ability to think properly or keep in touch with reality.

If you are worried about your mental health, here are some of the signs that they may be a problem:

  • a gradual or sudden deterioration in your school work
  • feeling exhausted or tired all the time
  • not turning up at school or college
  • withdrawing from your social life or stopping sports you used to enjoy
  • mood swings and feeling irritable a lot of the time
  • difficulty in sleeping
  • misuse of alcohol or drugs
  • significant weight loss/gain
  • hearing or seeing things that other's don't
  • mistakenly thinking people are 'out to get you' or are laughing at you

If you are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or finding it difficult to cope, you need to tell someone.

You may have a mental health problem that can be treated and therefore it's best to get help as soon as possible rather than to carry on suffering.

Talk to a trusted adult or friend, or see your GP and talk to them about your concerns. Alternatively, contact the organisations below for support.

For more help and information

  • The Samaritans are always available to listen when you need someone to talk to (08457 90 90 90)      
  • YoungMinds is a charity that helps to improve the mental health of young people.
  • ChildLine are there to listen to any problems you have and will try to help you sort them out. (0800 1111). Or, if you cannot face speaking to somebody you can send instant messages via the internet to an NSPCC advisor.
  • What Works 4 U is a website where young people can share what treatments have worked for their mental health problems and learn what has worked for others.

Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: 9 June 2008