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Young person's introduction
to mental health

If you are a young person who has had experience of mental illness or you care for someone who may have been unwell, you will probably sometimes feel confused and alone about the way it affects your life. You will also probably have many questions.

  • What is mental health and how does a person who is mentally ill act?
  • Does having a mental illness mean that you are violent?

This factsheet has been written to answer questions you may be asking and to help put aside some of the misconceptions people often have about mental illness. It discusses some of the feelings and experiences you may be having and also looks at some of the different ways mental illness may affect your life.

The information contained here will also help you to think about different types of mental illness and the kind of help that is available.

What does mental health mean?

The word 'mental' means 'of the mind'. It describes your thoughts, feelings and understanding of yourself and the world around you.

The word 'health' generally describes the working order of your body and mind. So when we talk about 'mental health' we are referring to the working order of your mind.

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Mental illness

Sometimes things go wrong with our bodies. We may catch a bug and become ill or we might get hurt in an accident. In the same way, we can have problems with our mental health. There are different types of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. We will look at these in more detail in a little while.

Mental distress

If we have problems with our mental health we might feel:

  • sad
  • worried
  • confused
  • angry
  • in despair
  • hopeless
  • tearful
  • scared
  • irritable
  • panicky
  • numb
  • guilty.

In addition we might think that we are:

  • unlovable
  • guilty
  • bad
  • evil.

These feelings can become so strong that they start to overwhelm us. We feel they are too much to cope with and we become distressed by them.

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When people become mentally ill

Describing mental illness

People use different words to explain that they have had problems with their mental health. Some say they had a mental illness. Others say they were mentally distressed, or they may say they had mental health problems.

Signs of mental illness

You come out in spots when you have chicken pox, or if you have a cold your nose runs. But with mental health problems it can be different. Sometimes you cannot tell if someone has a mental health problem.

You may notice that someone close to you has changed. Perhaps they want to be alone all the time and do not want to go out, whereas before they were always chatting and enjoyed going to see different people and places.

These are some other things you may notice about someone who has a mental health problem:

  • Some people may do or say strange things.
  • They may hear or see things that nobody else can.
  • They may seem sad or cross all the time.
  • They may seem tired or have amazing amounts of energy.
  • They may hold strange beliefs.
  • They may believe someone or something is trying to harm them and so seem scared all the time.
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What causes mental illness?

We do not fully understand the causes of mental health problems, but some possible reasons include:

  • Stress - too much can make it hard to cope with problems. Changes can be stressful, such as when a loved one dies, getting divorce or moving house. Pressure from school, work, or other people can be stressful too.
  • Genes - these are codes that contain information about what hair colour we are going to have and how big our feet will be. Some scientists think some people have genes that tell their brains to develop a mental health problem. These mental illness (or mental distress) genes may need stress or upset to make them work.
  • Biochemistry - the mixture of natural chemicals in our bodies - can affect how we think or feel. What we eat and drink, illness, hormones, our environment and stress can affect bichemistry.
  • Upbringing can cause mental health problems. For example, growing up in a family where you never felt loved or cared for can be difficult. Or perhaps there has been abuse. Not being encouraged to say how you feel can also affect mental health. Sometimes parents themselves felt unloved or had problems growing up and therefore may not know how to show love or care to their own children.

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  • One in four people will develop a mental health problem during their lifetime.
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Understanding different mental health problems


Most people know what it feels like to be sad or unhappy. If you feel depressed you feel very down. Everything is too much effort. You may think you are useless and no good. Activities you used to enjoy are not interesting any more, and things that used to make you laugh are no longer funny. You may feel tired all the time, have trouble sleeping and don't feel like eating. However, sometimes people eat and sleep more than usual when they feel depressed.

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Things that can help include:

  • talking about how you feel to someone you can trust, including parents, teachers, youth leaders, counsellors, or your GP
  • prescribed medication such as antidepressants
  • herbal remedies, such as St John's wort (talk to your family doctor first if you would like to take this herbal remedy as it can cause complications if taken with other prescriptions, such as birth control pills).

Fact Zone

  • Famous people who have been depressed include:
    • Winston Churchill
    • Janet Jackson
    • Patsy Kensit
    • Caroline Aherne (Mrs Merton)
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Manic depression

If you have manic depression then you can have times when you are very high or 'manic', and times when you are depressed.

When you are manic you can feel very good. You can have boundless energy; you move and talk quickly, you have lots of ideas, all things are possible, you may need very little sleep and you can feel very creative. You may also spend too much money, not be able to concentrate and feel irritable. In addition some people hear voices or see things that others cannot see. Some people become paranoid (that is, believe others want to harm them).

Things that can help include:

  • particular types of counselling
  • medication, especially lithium which helps moods to stay in balance
  • avoiding stress or watching stress levels, eating properly, and getting enough sleep.

Fact Zone

  • Just under one percent of the population will develop manic depression during their lifetime.
  • People with manic depression include Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Junior and Stephen Fry.
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Postnatal depression

During the first week after having a baby many mothers get the 'baby blues'. This is often caused by hormone changes. They can feel tearful, worried and irritable for a little while. For some mothers the condition become more serious, and they may develop a type of depression called 'postnatal depression'.

'Post' means after and 'natal' means birth, so postnatal depression means depression after the birth of a baby.

If a mother has postnatal depression she might feel hopeless, tearful, unable to cope, guilty, worried, fearful about the baby's safety, irritable, and unable to bond with her baby.

Things that can help include:

  • support from family and friends
  • talking to others
  • antidepressant tablets
  • hormone therapy
  • Getting rest, and eating regularly to make sure that sugar in the blood stays at the right level.

Fact Zone

  • Famous mothers who have had postnatal depression include:
    • Brooke Shields
    • Elle MacPherson
    • Trisha Goddard (talk show hostess)
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Almost everybody feels worried or anxious at certain times, perhaps before taking exams, reading out at an assembly, or while waiting for a friend who is late. When you are feeling anxious your heart beats faster, it is hard to swallow or concentrate, thoughts go around and around in your head, it may be hard to sleep at night, your palms feel sweaty, your chest feels like it is going to burst, you get butterflies in your stomach and your legs turn into wobbly jelly.

These feelings are caused by a chemical called adrenaline, which is released into the blood stream when we feel worried or fearful. Adrenaline action is useful if we come across a wild bear or someone who might hurt us. It is not so useful if we are going to perform in a school play. Unfortunately, our bodies can't tell the difference between different types of danger. The body only knows we are anxious.

Some people feel anxious for much of the time and this can interfere with your life and prevent you from doing things.

Things that can help include:

  • learning relaxation exercises
  • breathing deeply
  • a type of counselling called cognitive behavioural therapy
  • medication, including sleeping pills and tranquillisers (sleeping pills only work for a short time and tranquillisers can be hard to come off)
  • herbal treatments and other complementary therapies
  • not eating too much food containing a lot of white sugar
  • exercise.

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  • If you are anxious you can lose as mush as 2.5 litres of water, as sweat, during the day.
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Almost everyone knows what it is like to feel frightened. Phobias are big fears of particular objects or situations. Some common phobias include:

  • claustrophobia - fear of enclosed spaces
  • pogonophobia - fear of beards
  • triskadekaphobia - fear of the number 13
  • schoinophobia - fear of going to school.

Things that can help include:

  • a type of counselling called cognitive behavioural therapy
  • relaxation exercises.
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Obsessions are thoughts or ideas that keep going around in your head. They can be worrying and upsetting. Sometimes you may have do things in a certain way. For example, if someone touches the table you may feel the need to go and wash it and if anyone interrupts you, you may feel you have to start again. Obsessions can stop you from doing things and getting on with your life.

I have to keep checking to see if the taps are off before I go out. I may have to check them five or six times before I feel okay about them.

Things that can help include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • relaxation.
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Eating problems

Sometimes food can be used as a way of showing feelings that are hard to talk about, or as a way of feeling in control of things. Sometimes people eat less food than their bodies need for fuel, and others eat more than their bodies need. Sometimes people feel the only way they can feel accepted, successful or safe is for their bodies to look a certain way.

There are three main types of eating problems:

I feel so scared, I just don't know what to do. I know I need to eat more or I could die; I am just so frightened if I put on weight I will lose control, and I couldn't bear that.
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Anorexia nervosa

The word 'anorexia' means loss of appetite. However, people with anorexia nervosa often still feel hungry, but have a need to stop themselves eating food and from keeping or gaining weight. There are many reasons why someone will develop anorexia. Some may see putting on weight as losing control. They may feel that the only aspect of life they are able to take charge of is their intake of food. Not eating and losing weight may give the person a feeling of being safe and secure. As well as losing a lot of weight people with anorexia can develop problems with their bones, heart and kidneys. Their hair can become thinner. Girls' periods may stop. They may find it harder to keep warm and they may grow extra hair on their faces. They may think about food all the time and over exercise. People with anorexia may find it difficult to sleep at night.

It is so stressful. I think about counting calories from the moment I wake up. Actually I even dream about food and calories. I like the feeling that I have power over my body, but I hate the way everybody tries to make me eat. My mum shouts at me at meal times and I can't see my friends, just in case someone wants to buy some chips or make a sandwich.
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Bulimia nervosa

People with bulimia often find it difficult to keep to a regular eating pattern. As the problem develops they may find themselves swinging between eating a lot of food at once (binge-eating) and then feeling the need to get rid of what has been eaten (purging). The binge-eating is often done in secret and the food is often eaten as quickly as possible. Sometimes a binge is planned for a certain time, or sometimes it will occur after something upsetting has happened. If you are bingeing your stomach will probably feel bloated and you may feel panicky, out of control and unhappy with yourself. So you may try to get rid of the food you have eaten by vomiting or using laxatives to make yourself go to the toilet. Some people go without food for a time or carry out a lot of exercise instead. As many people with bulimia binge and purge in secret and often keep the same weight, others may not know they have this problem and how badly they are feeling. Bulimia can damage teeth and body organs, make your cheeks puffy and cause extra hair to grow on your face.

I would get very excited and buy bread, cake, biscuits, chocolate, peanut butter, coke. I made sure I had the house to myself. I would then tear the wrappers open and stuff everything thing into my mouth. As I ate all the feelings that had built up inside me were somehow quashed. The quicker I ate the quicker the feelings were pushed aside. Afterwards I felt horrible, how could I have eaten so much.
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Most people know what it is to overeat, especially at Christmas time. Some people have a need to keep on eating when they are full or to turn to food when they feel upset or even when they are excited. The more they eat the more they are likely to put on weight. This increase in weight can make them feel unhappy and so they start to eat again. So an unhappy cycle of eating is set up.

Eating biscuits makes me feel better. They make me feel warm inside.

Things that can help include:

  • talking about it
  • counselling, family counselling
  • seeing your GP.

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  • Eating a very low fat diet can lower your mood and make you feel sad and irritable.
I hated myself. I was worried that if I told people what I did they would think I was disgusting.
Hillary, bulimic
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Schizophrenia is a word that many people have heard of. They probably know that it is something to do with mental health problems, but they don't understand what it really means or what it is like to have schizophrenia. The actual word 'schizophrenia' means split mind. Some people think schizophrenia is like having a split personality, that sometimes you are okay and other times you act strangely, like the two halves of the fictional character, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is not true for schizophrenia; it is more like the mind has split away from the daily reality of life.

So if you have schizophrenia you may:

  • have a different understanding of the world around you
  • see or hear things that others do not; your brain may interpret information it receives from the senses in different ways to others
  • think that everyday objects have a secret or coded meaning; for example, if the newsreader on television was wearing a yellow tie, your brain may tell you that means he is sending you a coded message to go out of the house
  • think others are putting thoughts into your head or that everyone can hear your thoughts without you saying anything
  • feel others are out to harm you.

It can feel very frightening. It can be hard to get support from other people, as many people with schizophrenia have a desire to withdraw from the company of others.

There are different types of schizophrenia. Not everyone with schizophrenia shares exactly the same symptoms. Most people who have been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia are not ill all the time.

Things that can help include:

  • medication
  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • family therapy.

Fact Zone

  • If you live in Africa and you develop schizophrenia, you are less likely to have problems than if you live in Britain. This may be due to the way in which African societies both understand and support people with schizophrenia.
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Young carers

I love my mum, but sometimes I hate having to do everything: washing, cooking, sorting out bills. It makes me kind of mad. I have to make sure my brother and sisters are okay. I'm tired. It is hard to finish homework and I don't go out. When mum is not ill she is great, otherwise it can be bad. Dad doesn't want to know.
Denise, 15 years

Looking after a parent or relative with mental health problems can be very difficult. You can have many different feelings and thoughts. You may feel anger, tiredness and overwhelmed with responsibility. You may feel things are unfair or ask, 'Why me?'

It may be hard to talk to others about how you feel because you are worried about letting your parents down. Perhaps you think that no one will understand, or are frightened others will interfere with your family life.

However, talking over your worries can help. It could be someone like a trusted relative, teacher, school nurse, religious leader, youth worker/counsellor, a young carers group, or an organisation like Childline (see useful addresses at the end of this factsheet).

I hate it when mum is ill. It's like she's the child and I'm the adult. I'm being like a mum myself, only I don't always want to be. Sometimes I just want to be like a little baby again and have someone look after me. I can talk to my aunt and brother, but it's not quite the same. When mum is well she says she loves me, sometimes that makes me want to cry. Friends don't always understand and call my mum weird. I feel sad sometimes, but mum is mum and I love her.
Angela, 13 years
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Fears and concerns

Developing a mental health problem

If your parent has a mental health problem then you might be worried about developing one yourself.

I worry I might get ill like mum. My gran says it's in the family. Mum's got red hair and freckles and so have I.

Although scientists believe that some families pass on genes that make it more likely for someone to develop a mental illness, it does not mean if your parent has a mental health problem then you will, too. Genes are complicated and they might need certain things to occur in order to make them cause a problem.

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  • Studies show that most children do not develop the same mental health problem as their parent.

It can be stressful looking after a parent. Some children can become anxious or depressed. It is important to look after your own needs and have someone that you can trust, talk to and get support and care from.

Dealing with frightening or worrying words and behaviour

Sometimes, when a parent is mentally distressed, they may say strange or hurtful things. They may behave in a way that is hard to understand. You may not feel supported or cared for in a way that your parents would probably like. You may also feel hurt, embarrassed, scared and unsure about what to do.

Friends or people on the street may have no understanding of mental health problems, and say unkind words or behave in a nasty way. It may be difficult to talk with your parent at this time, and it is possible you can feel very alone, guilty and worried that you were responsible for your parent's distress.

Remember, whatever is said, you are not a bad person, and you didn't cause your parent's mental distress. It is important to get support and help from a trusted adult and be able to talk about your concerns with them whenever you need to.

The worst part is when you're not sure how ill she is and wonder if you should call a doctor or friend.
Helen, 14 years
I hate it when dad says it is my fault and that I'm useless and I'm being bad if I don't understand what he is talking about.
Pat, 13 years

Fears about the consequences of asking for help

You may be worried about telling adults about your concerns and needs in case you risk ending up being placed into care, and/or your parent being taken to hospital.

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Anxieties about a parent going to hospital

It can be very worrying when a parent is mentally distressed. You may worry about leaving your parent alone to go to school. So it is very important to be able to talk over your concerns with a trusted adult - and remember you have needs too.

You might feel guilty or angry if your parent has to go to hospital. Again, it is important to be able to talk about your feelings and to know that your parent's distress is not your fault, and that it is okay to feel how you do about the situation.

You may feel scared or unsure about what is happening to your parent while they are in hospital. To help deal with these feelings try to find out some information. Ask your GP or the hospital medical staff; visit the library, contact relevant organisations (you can find the addresses of some of these organisations at the end of this factsheet), and/or get a trusted person to help you.

I went to mum's ward. She was just sitting there. Her eyes were funny. Somebody was making strange sounds. I felt scared. The nurses had keys. It was like mum was in prison. It didn't seem like my mum. She wouldn't really talk and her hands were shaky. I didn't understand what was going on. A nurse told me later about my mum's illness. It was the medicine that was making her eyes funny.
Angela, 14 years

You may also be concerned about what will happen to you if a parent goes into hospital and there are no adults at home. Under the Children's Act 1989, you have the right to ask to stay with a relative or friend. You can find out more about laws like this in a moment.

Anxieties about being placed into care

Although this is a very real issue, social workers try to keep families together where at all possible. They would only place a child into care if they thought the child's health or development was suffering badly and they were not doing as well as they should be for their age.

However, remember social workers want families to stay together, and therefore they should provide any extra support to allow this to happen. Some families may need help with cleaning and cooking. Others might need more help actually caring for the parent.

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Laws which can help families

Community Care Act (1990)

Under this act a social worker can come around to the house and see what support the parent with mental health problems need. This is called a Community Care Assessment. Social services are allowed to charge for services that are needed. There are rules about when they can charge and how much they can charge. This law is called the Health and Social Services and Social Adjudication's Act 1983, section (17). If the family thinks that social services are charging unfairly they can make a complaint. If you need help with this, your local Citizen's Advice Bureau may be able to help. To find the address of your local Citizen's Advice Bureau look in a telephone directory or ask at your local library.

Carers (Recognition and Services) Act, 1995

At the same time as having a Community Care assessment carried out, carers can ask for their needs to be looked at. Young carers have a right to ask social services for this.

Children's Act 1989 (Section 17)

As a young carer you may be seen as a 'child in need'. This means you have a right to receive extra support and services either for yourself or your family. This support may be needed in order to stay together as a family. Social services are not allowed to ask for money for these services if your parent is receiving income support or family credit.

Mental Health Act (Section 117)

If your parent has been assessed under the Mental Health Act 1983 and placed on a 'section three for treatment', they are entitled (under Section 117 of the Mental Health Act) to aftercare services when they leave hospital. These services can include things like help with cooking and cleaning, housing and employment.

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Maintaining mental health

Being mentally healthy is having the ability to adapt and cope with change, and to make the best of any situation you may find yourself in.

It is not always easy being yourself; to grow into the adult you would like to become! Teachers, parents, and friends may be well meaning, but it is difficult to meet their expectations as well as to be or do things your way. As you develop into a young adult you will be faced with many changes and choices.

Your body

You may not see the reflection of a super model, sports person or favourite film celebrity when you look in the mirror, but you can still make the best of your inherited shape, features and colouring. Look out for advice on hair, make up or clothes in books, publications or magazines, or ask trusted family/friends, and hairdressers.

Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and take regular exercise.

You may be concerned about physical changes, whether your body is developing at the same rate or in the same way as your friends. Many young people have the same worries and it can be good to talk to someone you trust, maybe a relative, teacher, or youth counsellor.


You may experience mixed emotions about what is happening to you and worry about relationships with your family and friends. You may be worried about the future.

You may also be aware of having sexual feelings and have questions about sex, your own sexuality, contraception and relationships. (It is unlawful to have sex under the age of 16, although you can still ask for advice on contraceptives.)

For further help and advice you can contact your GP (your GP has the right to inform your parents if you are under the age of 16), Brook Advisory Centre, family planning clinic, Youth Access, Young Minds or Childline.


You may be expected to make important choices regarding issues such as exams, which may affect your future career. You may also be asked to experiment with sex, drugs, smoking, solvent abuse, or alcohol. Friends might put pressure on you to take risks, which you know could be destructive or harmful to yourself or others. Remember you can say no at any time. Your body belongs to you. Take time to make decisions, to decide what is right for you now. You also have the right to change your mind. It is okay to make mistakes. However, be careful, as some mistakes can never be put right (drug overdose for example). So think first and perhaps talk it through.

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Tips on keeping mentally healthy


Share your feelings and concerns with someone you can trust, perhaps a friend, parent, teacher, relative, school nurse, youth counselor/worker, GP, or even a helpline.

Get informed

Make sure you know where and how to get appropriate and accurate information. Some sources may include your GP, parents, teacher, school nurse, youth counsellor/worker, Brooke Advisory, Youth Access, Childline or other helplines, library, Town Hall (please see Useful addresses section at the end of the factsheet).

Look after your health

Eat a balanced diet (it's okay to eat junk food occasionally). Get enough sleep and exercise to both feel and look good.

Enjoy yourself

Make time to relax and participate in things that you enjoy doing such as seeing friends, listening to music, playing sports and other things you like doing outside of school.

Build up your confidence

Find positive ways to feel good about yourself and your capabilities.

Write down all the things you are good at

For example, listening, swimming, football, art, music and so on. Try out new activities; if it does not work out you can always have a go at something else. Charity work, helping others/animals can make you feel good as well.

Believe in yourself

Tell yourself that you are okay and believe it.

Take care of yourself

Remember you are important. Look after yourself.

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
Nelson Mandela
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*Content source: BerkshireHealthcare.nhs.uk