Why mental health is important – and signs that reveal you’re struggling

Important for both our emotional and physical wellbeing, we explore why mental health matters and how to give yours a boost.

It’s common when someone asks how you are to respond with a polite “I’m fine, thanks” irrespective of what is going on in your life.

What you’re far less likely to talk about (or even think about) is how you are doing from a mental wellbeing point of view. Yet your mental health is just as valuable as your physical health.

We’ve spoken to three experts to find out more about why mental health is important, along with how to spot the signs that something is wrong, and how to seek support.

A man sat on the side of his bed with his fingers interlocked and looking pensiveCredit: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

What is mental health and why is it important?

“How’s your internal weather?” is a question you’re very unlikely to be asked, but it could be an apt way of enquiring about someone’s mental health.

Just as the seasons change and the weather can vary, your mental health can also go through periods of ups and downs, sunshine and showers.

On good days, you might feel bursting with energy and get- up-and-go, while on others you may feel lacklustre because of physical health factors. For example, feeling under the weather due to illness and living with a long-term condition can directly affect your mental health.

The World Health Organisation goes even further by stating that mental health is “an integral component of health and wellbeing”.

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Motivation and mental health

Much of what gets us out of bed in the morning and participating in healthy behaviours – such as exercise, eating well, and getting plenty of sleep – can be attributed to good mental health.

“While mental health is important for a number of reasons, it is absolutely central to your motivation in life,” says leading clinical psychologist Dr Linda Blair.

“Without motivation, you won’t have the enthusiasm to look after your physical health. But if you’re feeling OK internally, you’ll try to continue taking those lifestyle steps that you know are good for you.

“Motivation is the main reason why mental health matters so very much. I don’t think anything else comes near it”

Misunderstandings about mental health

One of the biggest misconceptions around what good mental health looks like, is that you should always be happy and looking on the bright side of life. This just isn’t true, says Lisa Sanfilippo, a psychotherapist and member of TherapyFinders.

“Each of us would describe what it’s like to feel and be mentally healthy in different ways, but it absolutely does not mean we’re happy all the time,” she explains. “I’d say having good mental health is when we are able to meet the challenges of life with some resilience.

“This would include experiencing a full range of emotions from contentment and grief, to anger and frustration, through to wonder and awe,” she adds. “Yet recognising that these emotional states are all part of being human and that you can navigate your way through them without being totally overwhelmed.”

A stack of six wooden cubes each showing a positive or negative mental health emotion icon, on a blue backgroundCredit: Shutterstock/Laong
Feeling happy all the time is a common misconception about being mentally healthy.

What good mental health looks like

When you are mentally healthy, it’s probably best described as feeling good on the inside. In weather terms, it’s a blue sky with white clouds and occasional bursts of sunshine. But you also know that a patch of rain can come at any time, and you’re OK with that.

You might also feel calm, contented, hopeful and generally accepting of yourself, while recognising that you are valued by the people that matter to you.

Having good mental health also makes life feel a little easier. During times when you’re feeling emotional, you can calm and comfort yourself. You’re also able to make and maintain good relationships.

Looking after your mental health

“There are various life stressors and events that impact negatively on our mental health,” explains Lisa Gunn, mental health preventative lead at Nuffield Health. “If we don’t look after our mental health, these can impact on our ability to function in life.”

She adds that finding ways to relax and minimise stress is important, as is getting enough sleep and eating well. Connecting with others is also central to having good mental health.

“Think about the relationships you have with others in your life and how they make you feel,” Gunn advises. “Do you have people around you who love and support you, and are there people you can trust? Maintaining healthy connections with others enhances your wellbeing and also helps you to maintain a good level of self-esteem and self-awareness.”

Another aspect of looking after your mental health centres on keeping in tune with your values. “It’s important to build a life that is in line with what you value,” Gunn adds. “For example, if you value eating well but you never get around to making and eating healthy food, this will impact on your wellbeing and your sense of self.”

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Silver-haired lady sitting with her hands resting on her temples, looking stressedCredit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Uri A
Feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day life can be a sign of declining mental health

Signs of declining mental health

When your mental health is balanced, you can generally adjust and adapt to life’s challenges. But one of the warning signs that your mental health may be declining is when feelings of being overwhelmed and agitated start to become the norm.

Sanfilippo says there are several other signs too, and these include:

  • Appetite changes – you may start eating when you aren’t hungry or find you don’t have much of an appetite at all.
  • Sleep changes – “difficulty sleeping is common and can last a long time and leave people feeling ill-equipped for the day ahead,” she says.
  • Weight changes – drastic fluctuations can also be a signal. “People can gain or lose weight in an extreme way as a result of overeating or significantly reducing their food intake,” Sanfilippo adds.
  • Unhealthy habits – Sanfilippo says that when mental health is declining, unhealthy habits such as smoking, binge-drinking and drug-taking can either start or increase.
  • Addictive behaviours, including gambling and shopping – these can start or increase.
  • Feeling disconnected from others – you may feel withdrawn from loved ones.
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy – “withdrawing from things that you used to find meaningful is another tell-tale sign,” Sanfilippo adds.

“But there are two major signs that indicate worsening mental health and that you would benefit from receiving some help,” she says. “These are living with a sense of shame and feeling unable to cope with day-to-day life. If you recognise you sometimes feel like this, it’s so important to find someone you feel able to open up to.”

Who you can talk to if you’re worried about your mental health

It’s important to remember that you’re not on your own and there are people and organisations that can help. Sources of support include:

Mind

The mental health charity Mind has a helpline where you can speak with a trained advisor to get advice and learn more about local support services. Mind’s helpline is open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. Call 0300 123 3393 or email info@mind.org.uk

Samaritans

Samaritans offer emotional support 24 hours a day. You can chat with a trained advisor in full confidence, for free, by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.uk.

Your GP

For some, a local doctor is the person they feel able to open up to about their mental health. Your GP is also well placed to help with providing treatment options, including referrals to support services.

Someone you trust

Letting a friend or loved one know how you’re feeling can also be enormously helpful. As well as feeling a weight lift off your shoulders when you share your troubles, you can also get some much-needed perspective and invaluable support.

See our article on starting a mental health conversation for more expert advice.

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Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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