What is Mental Health?

This is an information sheet I made, available on the Royal Association for Deaf People's website (www.royaldeaf.org.uk)


(you just might not realise it…)

We are


"mental". This means that we all are able to think about the world and about the things we do. We are also all emotional. This means that we all feel happy or sad, excited or bored, stressed or relaxed, and so on.

There is more to us than blood to keep us alive, muscles to move us about, and bones to hold us up. Those are the physical parts of us. We also have ideas, beliefs, fears, wishes, dreams, worries, relationships and so on. They are not physical, so to make it easy to talk about them we call them all "mental".

Sometimes our ideas, beliefs, and feelings can start to make life difficult for us. When that happens we have problems - but they are not physical problems. They are problems with the mental parts of our lives.

You might call them "mental health problems"…

Mental Health

What is

mental health

? Well… what is

physical health



We are

physically healthy

when we are not ill and when we feel good and fit.

We are

mentally healthy

when we are coping with life, feeling OK about ourselves, and relating well to other people.

We can get unwell or unfit in many different ways -

physical health problems

can be just a small problem like a cold, or a big problem like cancer.

We can get mentally unwell or unfit too -

mental health problems

can be just a small problem like being frightened of spiders, or a big problem like believing wrongly that people want to kill you.

They can be simple like a broken leg or complicated like kidney failure.

They can be simple like a phobia or complicated like schizophrenia.



is 100% physically healthy. Some people are weaker than others; some people get out of breath quickly; some people always have a cough. Probably


is 100% mentally healthy either. Some people get stressed easily; some people worry all the time; some people don't go out much because they are frightened that something will happen. We are


physically healthy in some ways and physically unhealthy in others. We are also


mentally healthy in some ways and mentally unhealthy in others.

Being Labelled

People worry about being labelled "mentally ill" - but what does this mean? Most people we see who we think are "mentally ill" are on the news. Also, they are on the news because they have done something terrible. We do not see people on the news who have not done anything wrong. So nearly all the people we see who we think are "mentally ill" are on the news and all those people have done something terrible. That's why they are on the news. So people think that all people with mental health problems are dangerous or out of control -

but that's wrong.

Also most people with mental health problems we see on TV have schizophrenia.

But most mental health problems are simple - like stress, feeling depressed, or being scared of something harmless.


Having a problem with your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of - just like having something wrong with you physically is just a part of life

It is a shame that people do not ask for help with mental health problems because they are worried about what other people will think of them. If people talked about their problems more, they would find out that other people have them too and that difficulties with emotions, thoughts and beliefs ("mental health problems") are just a part of life. We all have them and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Mental Health Problems

Nobody can do everything. If you have a leaking water pipe, a plumber can help you. If you are confused about your money then your bank manager can help you. If you cannot make shelves then a carpenter can help you.

If you find it difficult to feel happy, or to stop feeling stressed, or to stop feeling frightened then therapy can help you.


Some people can fix their own pipes, and some people can sort out their feelings - but there is nothing wrong with asking for help. ("Therapy" means talking to a counsellor, or taking medicine, or joining a group.)


Plumbing problems are about leaking and not leaking. Mental health problems are about coping and not coping. We can have problems coping with stress, with our emotions, with our fears, or with our worries. BUT a leak is easy to see. It is not easy to notice when we are not coping very well.

Emotions, thoughts, beliefs and worries, are all invisible - so it is hard to notice when we are not coping well, and it means we do not really see other people with similar problems either. If your problems upset you, or if they stop you from getting on with life, then it makes sense to ask for help from somebody who understands emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and worries.


That could be a counsellor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist… and so on. They mostly help by talking about the problem, because talking makes us think and thinking about the problem helps us to understand. When we understand the problem we can cope better, and when we can cope with it, the problem goes away. Sometimes our GP or a psychiatrist will give us medicine to help us cope. That can help too because medicines can help to calm us down if we are too wound up, or to cheer us up if we are feeling depressed.

Mental "Illness"

Nearly all

mental health problems are problems with emotions, stress, worries, or bad thoughts. These things are normal problems that have become bad enough for the person to have trouble coping by themselves, so they ask for help. A few of us have mental health problems that are so complicated and that upset us and disrupt our lives so much that it is difficult to understand what is going on.

Those problems are called "psychoses" or "schizophrenic illnesses", for example. If you have a problem like this, it is difficult to sort it out by talking about it and thinking about it because 1) the problem is very complicated and because 2) our thoughts become so mixed up that it is hard to think clearly about what is going on.

Doctors usually mean these complicated problems when they say somebody has a "mental illness". Sometimes those problems make it impossible for us to think clearly enough to make decisions for ourselves. Usually we decide when to ask for help and who to ask for it, but if we have a very complicated and serious problem that stops us from being able to decide for ourselves, then certain doctors are allowed to make that decision for us. Even then, they need a social worker and a second doctor to agree with the decision.

Sometimes it is useful to think about a mental health problem as an illness and sometimes it is not. Thinking in this way can be a bit black and white, but that means we can be clear what we are talking about.


Here, we say the people on the right are "ill" and the people on the left are "well".

For physical health and illness this is a good way to think about it. Sometimes with mental health it is useful as well. More often it is useful to think about a mental health problem as being normal but that has started to make your life difficult or unhappy. For example if you are frightened of going out in public that can be normal anxiety, but if it means you never leave your house then it might be a bigger problem.

Here, we don't say anybody is ill or well. We say people have problems that can be small or big. If a person's problem gets so big that they suffer from it, then they can get help. That decision is theirs unless they have very serious problems which mean they are not able to make decisions for themselves.

For most mental health problems it is usually not very helpful to think "am I ill or well?" It usually makes more helpful to think "do I think that I am coping with my life well, or am I having some problems with it?" If you feel like life is sometimes too much, it makes sense to ask somebody to help you cope.

People are scared of these "mental illnesses" because of what they see on the news - but we know that the news does not give us the full picture. Nearly all people with mental health problems have normal, simpler problems and therapy can help them to sort them out.


Many people decide not to ask for therapy because they are frightened of what other people will think. But really that doesn't make sense - it is like not going to hospital with a broken leg just because other people in the same hospital have scary problems like cancer.

A mental health problem can be anyproblem to do with thoughts, beliefs or emotions - that's what "mental" means - and we should always ask for help if we cannot cope alone.

Jim CromwellComment