We explore what might cause poor mental health and how to identify when a problem could be more serious with Vitality’s mental health and wellbeing coach, Yetunde Bankole

Our mental health is often shaped by what is happening around us and the situations we might find ourselves in. It’s perfectly normal for it to ebb and flow. You may notice a shift in your mental wellbeing over time, week by week or even day-by-day. But how can we differentiate a bad day or week from a more serious problem?

First, it’s important to consider what might cause changes in our mental wellbeing. Identifying possible triggers can help us understand the steps that we need to take to support us through these difficult periods.

Biological factors

Biological factors refer to those that contribute to the biological makeup of an individual and are generally hard to alter. These factors include genetics, age and hormone levels. For example, it’s common for women and people assigned female at birth to experience poorer mental health during menopause. Some people with chronic pain or physical illnesses may also experience low mood. 

Psychological factors 

These factors refer to our behaviours, emotions and how we think. Examples of psychological triggers that can affect our mental health include:

  • bullying or discrimination 
  • trauma 
  • our perceptions of body image 
  • addictions (such as gambling) 
  • stress

Social factors 

Social factors refer to how people and groups can influence our mental health. These factors include relationships (with friends, family and colleagues), culture, work, money and housing. For example, people may be more likely to experience loneliness if they lack social connections. Living with debt could also mean you are more likely to have mental ill-health.

The above are just a few examples of factors that might result in short or long-term mental ill-health. Some we may be able to control (such as if we experience work-related stress), whilst others might be out of our hands (such as world wars or natural disasters). Sometimes there’s no identifiable cause, and that’s OK. We all experience mental health differently and some people might feel the effects more deeply than others. 

So, how can we tell the difference between a bad day/week from a serious mental health problem? 

We spoke to Yetunde Bankole, lead mental health and wellbeing coach at Vitality, to find out more about the differences between short and long-term poor mental health, as well as how to ask for help. 

Consider the severity of your signs and symptoms 

“One of the ways to tell the difference between a bad day or week from a serious mental health problem is to look at the severity of those signs and symptoms in your response to what’s going on in your life,” Yetunde says.

“ It’s important to think about how long those reactions and feelings last and whether they start to consistently impact you in your day-to-day life. For instance, is it impacting your ability to work, are you able to maintain your relationships with loved ones or do you not want to participate in daily activities that are important to you? If the answer is yes to most of these questions, then this may be indicative of a more serious mental health problem, and it is advisable to seek support from a healthcare professional.”

It’s important to understand that our mental health is fluid, it will change and fluctuate based on what is happening in your life, and this is a natural response.  

The signs of a serious mental health problem to look out for  

“Signs and symptoms of a more serious mental health episode differ for everyone, so it can be helpful to reflect on how your own behaviour is changing. For instance, has your appetite dramatically changed, are you struggling to eat, are you withdrawing from friends and family or are you lacking energy? Equally, symptoms of poor mental health can present themselves physically,  such as gut changes, headaches, tremors or heart palpitations and  it’s important not to brush these off. 

“Learning what your own signs and symptoms may be and practising self-reflection will make it easier to recognise those symptoms and seek support when you need  it,  hopefully preventing your mental health from worsening.”

How do I approach the topic of poor mental health with friends and family

  • Identify those loved ones  that you know are supportive and will respond with understanding.  
  • Be honest and be vulnerable. This can be a difficult thing to do. Vulnerability can leave us feeling uncomfortable, but it deepens our connection with others when we’re honest about those things we may feel uncomfortable about sharing with others. 
  • Plan what you want to say (especially if you’re nervous or not sure how to broach those topics). Consider conversation starters such as , “I’ve been struggling with my feelings recently, can I talk to you about this?” or “Do you have some time to talk?” 
  • Normalise having conversations about our wellbeing with friends and family. This means not only sharing about how we feel ourselves but also asking other people how they are doing. There may be barriers stopping us from having these conversations, such as limited awareness, culture, stigma, and even the fact that our friends and family tend to see us one way, so they may find it difficult to hear that you’re struggling at first. Where we can normalise these conversations and check in on our mental wellbeing with our loved ones and friends, we can take down those barriers over time. 

Yetunde Bankole is the lead mental health and wellbeing coach at Vitality. Vitality offers health and life insurance that rewards you for making positive lifestyle choices. Their core purpose is to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives.