Mental distress refers to a state of emotional or psychological discomfort, unease, or suffering experienced by an individual. It can manifest in various forms and intensity, ranging from mild feelings of anxiety or sadness to more severe symptoms of depression, panic, or overwhelming stress.

Prolonged or severe mental distress can significantly impact a person’s well-being, functioning, and quality of life so recognising the signs and offering help early on can make a significant difference.

Understanding Mental Distress

Mental distress encompasses a range of conditions, from anxiety and depression to more acute issues like panic attacks or suicidal thoughts.

Triggers can include traumatic events, chronic stress, relationship problems, financial difficulties, work-related issues, medical conditions, or underlying mental health disorders.

These mental health challenges are just as legitimate as physical health problems and it’s essential to recognise they are a common human experience and do not necessarily indicate the presence of a mental illness.

There are a number of signs that can indicate a person is in mental distress, these include:

Changes in Behaviour

  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities
  • Increased irritability or mood swings

Physical Symptoms

  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Insomnia or excessive sleep
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches without a clear physical cause

Emotional Signs

  • Persistent sadness or hopelessness
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

Communication Cues

  • Verbalising feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Expressing thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Talking about feeling trapped or having no reason to live

Physical Warning Signs

  • Evidence of self-harm, such as cuts or burns
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene or appearance
  • Engaging in risky behaviours without regard for consequences

How to help people showing signs of mental distress

There are a number of ways  you can help a person in mental distress, these include:

Stay Calm and Non-Judgmental

  • Approach the individual with empathy and understanding.
  • Avoid making judgments or expressing disbelief about their feelings.

Encourage Communication

  • Allow the person to express their thoughts and emotions.
  • Listen actively without interrupting, offering a safe space for them to share.

Offer Reassurance and Support

  • Remind them that they are not alone and that help is available.
  • Encourage them to reach out to friends, family, or mental health professionals.

Help Them Connect with Resources

  • Make them aware of any support your company offers, for instance, Mental Health First Aiders and Mental Health Champions.
  • Provide information about mental health support services.
  • If appropriate, encourage them to seek professional help.


Recognising the signs of mental distress and providing timely support can play a crucial role in someone’s recovery journey. Mental health is an integral part of overall well-being, and by understanding and responding to mental distress, we contribute to creating a more supportive and empathetic community. Remember, mental health first aid is just as vital as physical first aid, and your actions can make a significant difference in someone’s life.

If you or someone you know is experiencing severe mental distress or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it’s crucial to seek immediate professional help.

Find out more about providing mental health support with our accredited training: Mental Health First Aider Course, Mental Health Champion Course and Mental Health Awareness Course.

Published On: February 12th, 2024