Understanding Mental Health

Our health is affected by our surroundings and by what happens in our lives.  This is true of mental health and physical health – and they both affect the other. 

Good mental health does not mean being happy or cheerful all the time.  It is normal to feel low or stressed or anxious sometimes.  It is part of being human. 

Understanding why we feel a certain way can bring a feeling of control. 

Poor mental health can be thought of as emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour.  And anyone can experience this - whether for a long or short time – depending on what is going on in their lives.

Text image It's not all in the Mind

What affects our mental health

Certain experiences and life circumstances are strongly linked to poor mental health. 

We know that childhood experiences of:

  • sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • childhood physical or emotional neglect
  • living in care
  • bullying
  • experiencing racial, sexual or other forms discrimination
  • poverty
  • poor housing
  • living in areas of high crime or war or conflict, or
  • being a refugee all negatively affect mental health. 

Not everyone who has experienced any of the above will need to seek help for their mental health. 

However, many people who do seek help from services have experienced (or are experiencing) significant adversity or trauma.

Instead of asking “What is wrong?” ask “What has happened?

We know that a person’s mental health is related to their experiences.

Living in any situation where we have limited power to make changes is linked to poorer  health.  Experiencing abuse or events that are traumatic are major factors influencing mental health.  This is particularly so if the abuse or trauma happens in childhood.

People, including mental health professionals, have different opinions about why  - and to what degree - such experiences are important in mental health.

There are also different opinions about how to describe someone’s mental health problems.   

For further discussion of this see the British Psychological Society’s Power Threat and Meaning Framework.

Power, Threat and Meaning graphic


In a medical model, mental health problems are often viewed as illnesses.  Some people find a diagnosis helpful or reassuring.  It can also be necessary e.g. to obtain financial support.  However, a diagnostic label can also make it harder to understand what it is in life that may have led us to feel or behave as we do.  This can mean we feel powerless. 

A step towards making changes

Starting to think about why we feel distress, what has happened to us in our lives and where responsibility lies can be very empowering.  It can lead to a very different understanding of what we have been through and who we are.  This can help us to make changes in our lives - changes which help our mental health.

Sometimes however it can be too hard to think about things that have had an effect on us.  In this case, it may be best to seek help or support. 

This could be from a trusted friend or from a mental health professional or your GP or organisations offering peer support.  There are many services and organisations that offer confidential support or counselling  - many are listed in relevant sections of the Moodcafe website -  or your GP may refer you to NHS psychological therapy or mental health services.

There are things that you can do to help yourself (or someone you care about)

Taking some control, even in a small way, can make a positive difference. 

Taking time to try and work out what might be making you feel or think in a certain way is often helpful.  But sometimes distracting yourself by keeping busy is what will lift the spirits.

Things to improve how we feel can include

  • talking to a friend
  • going for a walk
  • choosing to enjoy some time alone
  • taking exercise

Or it can can help to learn some techniques to manage strong emotions or reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.

At other times we need to show ourselves some kindness and accept that how we feel right now makes sense and will pass.  

There is no single right way for everyone in every situation.  And for some people, what is most needed is practical supports to feel safer or to make a change in their lives.