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Mental health problems



Mental health problems range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life to serious long-term conditions. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems or substance use problems there are ways to get help. In this article you can learn about mental health problems, mental disorders, and some of the options to get help.

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What are mental health problems and disorders?

The majority of people who experience mental health problems can get over them or learn to live with them, especially if they get help early on [Mental Health Foundation, 2020][1] .

All people experience major or minor mental health problems from time to time. It is normal and natural to have difficulty with thoughts and feelings at times. We can be sad, depressed, aggressive or elated, but as long as it does not affect our normal life for a long time, we do not call it a mental disorder - but merely a mental health problem.

Mental disorders are a common term for disorders and diseases that are characterized primarily by subjectively and severely troublesome mental symptoms over a long period of time with simultaneously reduced function in daily life or work compared to what was the person's normal level of function before the disorder debuted.

Important examples are anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis / schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, for some types of mental disorders this definition do not apply - as it is difficult to set a specific point for when the disorders had it debut. Some mental disorders are better understood as neurodevelopmental disorders, which to a large degree is inherited and/or largely explained by genetic factors. ADHD and autism spectrum disorders are important examples.



How common are mental health problems and disorders?

Mental health problems are very common. The following estimates illustrate this (see below). As seen from the statistics below, it might be difficult to assess how common mental health problems and disorders are, in part due to different ways to measure these problems. Nevertheless, the following estimates gives us some insights into the prevalence of mental health problems and disorders:


  1. Up to 1 on 5 children experience mental health problems, or around 20% [Bor et al., 2014][2]
  2. In children, the worldwide prevalence of mental disorders are 13% [Polanczyk et al, 2015][3]  
  3. The most common mental disorders among children are anxiety disorders (6.5%), conduct problems / disruptive behavior (5.7%), ADHD (3.4%), and depressive disorders (2.6%) [Polanczyk et al, 2015]
  4. According to a summary of WHO-surveys, the worldwide prevelance of mental disorders ranges from 18 to 36%, while the prevalence of a mental disorder each year ranges from 10 to 19% [Kessler et al., 2009][4]
  5. In one study, it was reported that around 1 in 4 adults (28%) fulfill criteria for at least one mental disorder each year [Jacobi et al., 2014][5]
  6. Comorbidity (that is, having more than one mental disorder) is common. Close to half of those with a mental disorder (i.e., 44%) have at least one additional mental disorder [Jacobi et al., 2014]
  7. The most common mental disorders among adults are anxiety disorders (experienced by 15% of the population each year); mood disorders (i.e., depression and bipolar disorders; experienced by 9% of adults each year); and substance use disorders (experienced by 6% of adults each year) [Jacobi et al., 2014]
  8. The prevalence of mental disorders are relatively higher among women versus men (33% versus 22% each year) [Jacobi et al., 2014]
  9. Mental disorders are particularly common in the age group of 18-34 years (37% experience a mental disorder each year in this age group) [Jacobi et al., 2014]



What are the different types of mental health problems and disorders?

There are different types of mental health problems. Here are the most common types:

  • is a neuropsychiatric disorder that results in impaired ability to concentrate, impulse control and regulation of activity level..
  •  is one of the most common mental disorders. Physically, anxiety and fear are exactly the same, and all people experience from time to time to be afraid. Anxiety disorders, however, indicate that the levels of fear significantly interfere with daily functioning levels and quality of life.
  •  is a pervasive developmental disorder that results in impaired functioning of social skills, communication, and flexibility in thought and behavior. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism.
  •  involves strong mood swings with an alternation between being completely down and depressed to having an explosive surplus of energy. The word bipolar therefore refers to suffering from problems in two poles (outer edges).
  •  is a widespread mental illness characterized by sadness most of the time, decreased interest in things that one usually has liked, and the feeling of being tired or less energized. Other common symptoms are concentration issues, sleep difficulties, feelings of hopelessness, and for some suicidal thoughts.
  •  are characterized by excessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors centering around food, body and weight, to the degree that these concerns limit the unfolding of life and impair the quality of life. The person becomes over-concerned with body, weight, appearance and food intake.
  •  is not a mental illness and not a mental health problem. Grief is a natural reaction to losing something that means a lot to us. However, grief can also gradually change into being a mental health problem, for example in the case of complicated grief.
  •  are mental disorders characterized by abnormalities in the personality. It is common with low and unstable self-esteem, as well as difficulties in interpersonal relationships. These problems affect the quality of life and how one functions in daily life. The condition manifests itself already in adolescence and continues into adulthood.
  •  can be considered as serious "states of confusion", and actually signify very profound nervous breakdowns. Schizophrenia is the name of a disease that is characterized by a prolonged psychosis.
  •  refer to excessive use of alcohol or other drugs to the extent that it negatively affects life. Addiction refer to intense focus on using a certain substance, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.
  •  is not a mental illness in itself, but is commonly experienced in relation to mental disorders, such as depression. When you experience suicidal thoughts, it is important to know that you are not alone in feeling this way. There are people who can help you. Talk to someone you trust and tell them how you feel, or contact a health service or helpline.
  •  is a behavior in which one consciously damages one's own body in various ways. The action is considered self-harm when one inflicts a directly visible damage on the body without this being socially, culturally or ritually accepted. It is most common to define self-harm as an act done without suicidal intent, that is, with intent to take one's own life.
  •  is the body's natural reaction in meeting demands and expectations. For example, it is natural to be stressed when taking an exam, or when performing difficult work tasks both at home, at school, or in working life. Psychological stress arises when a person experiences that the demands and expectations of the environment exceed their own capacity. Then the stress becomes uncomfortable, and can feel overwhelming. Stress is not a mental illness, but can be a risk factor for developing a mental disorder, or can be an integrated part of an already developed mental disorder.
  •  is more that experiencing a night of poor sleep. In some people the sleep problems are present almost every night. Such problems affect the level of function - both privately and at work. Sleep problems can be a separate mental health-related diagnosis, and can also be part of other mental disorders, including bipolar disorders, depression and anxiety.
  •  are disorders related to psychological trauma. The word trauma means injury or wound. When we talk about psychological trauma, we mean a type of event that can lead to psychological damage that afflicts the affected person in retrospect. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common trauma-related disorder, which occurs as a delayed or prolonged reaction to a stressful life event or situation (of short or long duration) of an unusually threatening or catastrophic nature, which would most likely cause severe discomfort to most people. Dissociative problems are often related to traumatic experiences.
  •  has many expressions. Domestic violence includes physical, psychological, material and sexualized violence. Being exposed to violence and abuse is a major risk factor for experiencing trauma-related disorders or other mental disorders.



What helps with mental health problems?

The most important thing to know about recovery from mental health problems and disorders is that it is possible to get better

A variety of measures can contribute to alleviate or completely remove a mental disorder, or to increase quality of life despite the symptoms of the disorder. This list is examples of what might be helpful in relation to mental health problems:


Different types of help

  1. Psychotherapy




    Psychotherapy / treatment is a process characterized by a time-limited contact between a therapist and a patient / client, in which specific problems are thematized and worked with. Include different therapeutic traditions (for example cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, family therapy, and more)

    A useful source that evaluate the effectiveness of specific therapies for different mental health problems is the website to the Cochrane Institute [Cochrane Institute][6] .


  2. Online therapy




    Online therapy is similar to traditional therapy or treatment, but is provided by digital means (either phone, video conference, or similar). Digital interventions can include a broader range of options, such as therapist-guided self-help programs online.

    The current research literature provide strong support for the adoption of online psychological interventions as a legitimate therapeutic activity [Barak et al., 2008][7] .


  3. Support / self-help groups




    Support / self-help groups can take a variety of forms, from providing a safe and supportive social environment; more or less structured group meetings; information and guidance relating to how to use available help services; and a lot more.

    While it is difficult to know the effectiveness of such services, due to very different compositions of support and self-help services, the research generally show the self-help groups may have important benefits for the participants [Kurouz et al., 2002][8] .


  4. Helplines and chats




    Different helplines and chats exist. Some helplines are specialized in providing you with information and guidance, while others are more specialized in providing emotional support. Some helplines are highly professional, while others are more based on voluntary workers, that merely wish to be a caring listener.

    It is difficult to evalute how effective such services are, and it probably depends on many factors. For example, while the state of the science regarding the effectiveness of crisis response services remains limited, overall results provide support for such services [Hoffberg et al, 2020][9] .


  5. Online communities and forums




    Online communities and forums are options to get in contact with other individuals that struggle with something similar to you or someone you know. Some communities are moderated by professional health workers, while most of them are not.

    Online communities is traditionally not understood as a support or health service, but rather a social area - that may have the potential of being supportive for the individual that uses it. Importantly, research has shown that "people with serious mental illness report benefits from interacting with peers online from greater social connectedness, feelings of group belonging and by sharing personal stories and strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges of living with a mental illness. Within online communities, individuals with serious mental illness could challenge stigma through personal empowerment and providing hope. By learning from peers online, these individuals may gain insight about important health care decisions, which could promote mental health care seeking behaviours" [Naslund et al., 2016][10] .

    This seems to indicate that online communites should not be underevaluated as a potential resource to recovery, coping and enhanced quality of life for people affected by mental health problems.



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References & Footnotes
  1. Mental Health Foundation, 2020: What are mental health problems? Retrieved 9th of February 2020 from&
  2. Bor et al., 2014: Bor, W., Dean, A. J., Najman, J., & Hayatbakhsh, R. (2014). Are child and adolescent mental health problems increasing in the 21st century? A systematic review. Australian & New Zealand journal of psychiatry48(7), 606-616.
  3. Polanczyk et al, 2015: Polanczyk, G. V., Salum, G. A., Sugaya, L. S., Caye, A., & Rohde, L. A. (2015). Annual Research Review: A meta‐analysis of the worldwide prevalence of mental disorders in children and adolescents. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry56(3), 345-365.
  4. Kessler et al., 2009: Kessler, R. C., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Chatterji, S., Lee, S., Ormel, J., ... & Wang, P. S. (2009). The global burden of mental disorders: an update from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) surveys. Epidemiologia e psichiatria sociale18(1), 23.
  5. Jacobi et al., 2014: Jacobi, F., Höfler, M., Siegert, J., Mack, S., Gerschler, A., Scholl, L., ... & Wittchen, H. U. (2014). Twelve‐month prevalence, comorbidity and correlates of mental disorders in Germany: the Mental Health Module of the German Health Interview and Examination Survey for Adults (DEGS1‐MH). International journal of methods in psychiatric research23(3), 304-319.
  6. Cochrane Institute: Cochrane Institute: "Trusted evidence. Informed decisions. Better health." Retrieved 9th of February 2020 from:
  7. Barak et al., 2008: Barak, A., Hen, L., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Shapira, N. A. (2008). A comprehensive review and a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of internet-based psychotherapeutic interventions. Journal of Technology in Human services26(2-4), 109-160.
  8. Kurouz et al., 2002: Kyrouz, E. M., Humphreys, K., & Loomis, C. (2002). A review of research on the effectiveness of self-help mutual aid groups. British Journal of Clinical Psychology33, 198-200.
  9. Hoffberg et al, 2020: Hoffberg, A. S., Stearns-Yoder, K. A., & Brenner, L. A. (2020). The effectiveness of crisis line services: A systematic review. Frontiers in public health7, 399.
  10. Naslund et al., 2016: Naslund, J. A., Aschbrenner, K. A., Marsch, L. A., & Bartels, S. J. (2016). The future of mental health care: peer-to-peer support and social media. Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences25(2), 113-122.