Understanding Mental Ill-Health

mental ill health

Everyone grapples with mental ill-health from time to time, but we don’t all understand it.

It might be the general absence of physical symptoms or apparent causes. It might be the blurred line between symptoms and self. Or it might be the lack of clarity from misguided attempts to discuss the issue sensitively.

Whatever the reason, learning more about mental health is essential because yours won’t always be good. And, just like our physical health, early intervention often makes for better outcomes. So, it helps to understand common causes of poor mental health, helpful habits and routes to recovery.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is a broad term and might carry different meanings for different people. Most explanations describe it as a person’s capacity to do three things: think, feel and behave healthily.

This definition still leaves a lot of room for interpretation, however. People have different understandings of what ‘healthy’ behaviour might be. Some mental health guidance refers to it as thinking, feeling and behaving as you want.

Your emotional well-being is also part of your mental health, but don’t confuse feelings of sadness or other challenging emotions as necessarily being examples of mental ill-health. Life can be difficult at times and everyone experiences negative feelings occasionally – it’s only when these feelings persist and start to make things unmanageable that they might be described as mental ill-health or mental illness.

The Difference Between Mental Ill-Health and Mental Illness

Mental ill-health and mental illness are similar but distinct.

Mental ill-health is the experience of finding it difficult to think, feel or behave in healthy ways over an extended period. Or to the extent that it’s causing you distress. It might also be referred to as mental health issues, challenges or concerns.

mental ill health and mental illness difference

Mental illness is a clinically diagnosed condition with observed and agreed symptoms, causes and corresponding treatments.

Someone suffering from mental ill-health might feel quite similar to someone with a mental illness at times.

Overall, a mental illness will have a more significant impact on someone’s ability to function in every part of their life and their overall well-being.

Another general distinction can be drawn between usual timeframes. Mental ill-health is usually short-lived compared to an illness and often tied to a specific situation, such as losing a loved one, increased stress at work or a significant life change.

Mental Health Awareness Training

Our Mental Health Awareness Training course will help increase an understanding of common mental health conditions, including how or when an individual might suffer and the ways to improve it to encourage positive mental health among the staff at work.

Causes of Mental Illness

There are no universally recognised causes of mental illness.

Anyone can experience it, and although looking after your mental well-being can help, medical intervention is necessary if you’re struggling.

You should speak to your GP if it’s getting too difficult to cope, or you can seek help through NHS mental health services.

Causes of Mental Ill-Health

As mentioned, mental ill-health is often tied to a particular situation or time in someone’s life when it’s harder to cope, which means there’s usually an identifiable cause.

But it’s not as simple as saying that a specific event will definitely trigger a period of mental ill-health.

A person’s background also plays a part. Childhood experiences are one of the defining factors in an individual’s ability to maintain their mental health. Some people are also genetically predisposed to be more susceptible to feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.

However, there are a few different challenges that are commonly tied to mental ill-health, including:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Facing discrimination
  • Suffering extended periods of stress (often caused by pressures at work)
  • Living with a long-term physical condition or chronic pain
  • Experiencing loneliness or feelings of isolation

Whatever the cause, it’s important to remember that feelings aren’t final and that if your mental health is suffering, there is help available, and you’re worthy of it.


Stigma isn’t a cause of mental ill-health, but it’s a common obstacle for people seeking support.

It’s harrowing if this stigma comes from your loved ones or people around you daily. Everyone’s mental health is different, and all experiences are valid.

Mental health is also protected by legislation, with multiple acts covering your right to treatment, respect and equal treatment. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, your employer must protect your overall health and mental well-being.


Successful treatment manages the causes of mental illness or ill-health, which often requires a combination of therapy and lifestyle changes. Medicine might also be prescribed for more severe conditions.

Lifestyle Changes

A significant number of people can improve their mental health without medical intervention.   It’s always helpful to look at your lifestyle first, as your habits directly affect your mental well-being.

Most healthcare professionals recommend:

  • Socialising with friends and loved ones
  • Spending time on hobbies or other enjoyable activities
  • Maintaining a routine, including regular mealtimes
  • Getting a good amount of sleep every night
  • Eating a balanced diet and avoiding caffeine or alcohol
  • Exercising regularly
  • Working towards achievable goals

These habits can make it easier to cope with difficult times but are often most effective when combined with medical support.

It should be noted that if you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, lifestyle changes alone will not be enough and medical support of some kind is necessary.

Medical Treatments

For both mental illnesses and prolonged periods of mental ill-health, medical professionals generally prescribe talking therapies or medication.

Treatment options for diagnosed mental illnesses are generally narrower and more likely to involve medication. The NHS typically observes treatment guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) when it comes to mental illness. However, NHS services are not required to follow them, so there’s some inconsistency across the UK.

If your mental health issues aren’t too severe, there’s more flexibility around your treatment. Talking therapy will often be the first recommendation.

mental illnesses medical treatment

Therapy can take different forms, so you should work with your GP or counsellor to find the right approach for you. The mental health charity Mind has a great breakdown of treatment options beyond the core treatments offered by the NHS.


People do recover from mental illness or periods of ill health with the proper treatment. Still, recovery isn’t always linear; some people find it easier than others.

It’s also not necessarily permanent. Similar to physical conditions, difficult feelings can come back or require regular effort to manage. But hopefully, with experience and support, you’ll learn how to navigate challenging times more healthily or gain more control over the problematic areas of your life.

Raising Awareness

Raising awareness is fundamental to improving understanding of mental ill-health. Learning more about the subject can help you get to grips with your feelings or make you a more supportive partner to a loved one. You might even find that your beliefs were unhelpful or perpetuated harmful ideas about mental illness and its treatment.

Training programmes, like our Mental Health Awareness give you a better appreciation of mental health and what you can do to support it. Learning is also one of the best ways to overcome the stigma still preventing many people from seeking help.

If you’re an employer or supervisor, giving your staff awareness training also helps you fulfil your duty to provide a safe working environment. Employees will be better equipped to handle stress or anxiety, reducing absenteeism and boosting productivity. You’ll also be able to show that employee health is a priority and that your workplace respects and values everyone’s mental well-being, which helps improve job satisfaction and staff turnover.

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Jonathan Goby
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