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15 September 2019

Common mental health challenges

Many things affect our mental health, including having good relationships, coping skills, and feeling respected. An important contribution to mental health is having employment or some form of meaningful activity.

Most people with mental health challenges can work, and want to work. And having a job helps people get well, and stay well.

The following commonly agreed definition of mental health emphasises a positive sense of wellbeing and resilience to cope:

Mental health is the emotional and spiritual resilience which enables us to enjoy life, and survive pain, disappointment, and sadness. It is a positive sense of wellbeing and an underlying belief in our own dignity and self-worth.

The term ‘mental health problems’ covers a wide range of conditions. This information aims to help you understand more about some of the most common mental health problems – stressanxietydepressionbipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. We are all individuals, and two people with the same diagnosis may experience very different signs, symptoms and behaviour.

For a comprehensive list of mental health conditions, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.


Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them. If pressure is excessive and goes on for too long, it can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and can also increase the risk factors for coronary heart disease, such as smoking and unhealthy eating.

Stress can be caused by factors at work or at home, with the latter being the more frequent cause. How people cope with pressure will be affected by a variety of factors including the amount of support the person has from friends, family, and work, as well as their personal coping mechanisms.

Anyone can experience stress at work, depending on the demands of their job, the conditions in which they work, and their individual susceptibility, which can be increased by problems outside work. It can be difficult to know when stress turns into a mental health problem, or when existing mental health problems are made worse by stress at work.

Common symptoms of stress include:

  • increased anxiety and irritability
  • impaired sleep and concentration
  • verbal or physical aggression
  • reduced attention span and impaired memory.

Early recognition of signs of stress is crucial to prevent it from becoming more serious. Most people make a full recovery, often without needing to take time off work. Individuals should be encouraged to seek help from their GP, from the human resources or occupational health service within their place of work if there is one, or from another professional.


Anxiety is a normal response to stress or uncertainty, but problems arise if it becomes too great to handle and stops the individual from coping with everyday life, including work. There are different types of anxiety.

Generalised anxiety is anxiety that affects a person all the time. Phobias lead to extreme fear of a particular object or place. In obsessive-compulsive disorder, certain words or ideas keep coming to mind, causing anxious feelings. For people with panic attacks, anxious feelings may come out of the blue.

Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • agitation
  • sleep disturbance
  • difficulty concentrating
  • loss of appetite or excessive appetite
  • physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach disorders or palpitations
  • panic attacks.

Recovery can be greatly helped by the support received from people at home and from managers and colleagues at work. Treatment aims to help the person reduce the symptoms of mental illness to an acceptable level so that they do not interfere with day-to-day living. People can help themselves by learning to relax, doing more physical activity, and learning more about their symptoms.


Depression is one of the most common forms of mental health distress. Depression is used to describe a range of moods, from low spirits to a severe problem that interferes with everyday life. Depression is usually only a significant problem if it lasts for more than two weeks.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • low, depressive mood with negative thoughts about self and others
  • numbness, emptiness, and despondency
  • lack of interest in life and motivation to do things
  • difficulty concentrating
  • social withdrawal
  • lack of appetite, or comfort eating
  • sleep disturbance
  • increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
  • feelings of guilt
  • self-neglect
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm.

More than 80 percent of people with severe depression can be helped quickly. Recognising that someone is experiencing depression and supporting them to seek help and treatment will reduce needless distress and speed their return to normal performance at work.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a disorder that affects a person’s moods. These mood changes can be extreme and unpredictable. Most often there is a high mood period alternating with a low mood period, with a stable period in between. It is difficult to generalise how the illness will affect someone. About one person in 100 is likely to develop bipolar disorder.

Common symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • elated mood with no obvious cause
  • periods of deep depression
  • lack of energy, or boundless energy and restlessness
  • rapid speech and disordered thoughts
  • little or no sleep, or waking early
  • reckless decision-making, or lack of inhibitions
  • in extreme cases, delusions or hallucinations.

Bipolar disorder can be managed successfully with support, medication, and other forms of treatment, and many people make a full recovery.


Schizophrenia is a term used to describe a condition where thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences are severely disrupted.

The first symptoms of schizophrenia tend to be experienced by men in their 20s and women in their 30s. Roughly a quarter of people diagnosed will recover completely, two-thirds will have multiple episodes and 10 to 15 percent will experience more enduring problems. Many people with schizophrenia lead full and fulfilling lives that include having relationships, children, work, and study.

Common symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • strongly held beliefs which are out of keeping with the person’s background and usual way of thinking
  • hearing voices
  • paranoia
  • seeing, tasting, smelling, or feeling things that are not there
  • believing that people, events, or objects control thoughts and actions in a way that cannot be logically explained
  • confused or muddled thinking or speech
  • loss of feelings.
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