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Promoting Wellbeing to Young People: The Difference between a Mental Health Problem and a Mental Health Disorder

Often when mental health is discussed, people immediately think of mental health disorders, such as depression or self-harm. However, mental health is a much wider subject than those disorders.

Here, safeguarding and duty of care provider, EduCare, look at how you can understand and promote mental wellbeing to young people.

The mental health continuum

Mental Health Continuum

Mental health can be described as a continuum. We are all at different places on the continuum at any given time. Where we are on the continuum depends on our lives and what is happening for us. We may move up and down from day to day, week to week, or even year to year.

Mental health is something which everyone has. We may be at different places on the continuum but we all have mental health.

More and more so, people are realising that a person’s mental health is just as important as their physical health.

In the case of young people, good mental health will help them develop resilience and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults. Therefore promoting mental wellbeing to young people is crucial in their formative years.

The charity, YoungMinds, define mental health in young people as:

“The strength and capacity of our minds to grow and develop, to be able to overcome difficulties and challenges, and to make the most of our abilities and opportunities”.

Understanding mental wellbeing in young people

For young people, mental health usually means:

  • A capacity to enter into and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships
  • A continuing progression of psychological development
  • An ability to play and to learn so that attainments are appropriate for their age and intellectual level
  • A developing moral sense of right and wrong
  • Knowing that it is okay to make mistakes and for things to go wrong
  • An ability to be able to reflect on past mistakes
  • A clear sense of identity and self-worth

It is important to understand that some young people will be better placed to stick to the positive end of the mental health continuum than others.

For example, a person with a mental illness may be coping very well and still managing to go to school or work because they are getting help. Another person may be at the thriving end of the spectrum when something happens such as a sudden bereavement, and this may send them immediately down to the ‘not coping’ end of the continuum.

Things will vary from young person to young person, especially in cases where the young person has a learning difficulty or has a condition such as autism which may cause them to struggle with sustaining relationships.

The difference between a mental health problem and a mental health disorder:

Mental health problem

A mental health problem refers to a disturbance of function in one area of relationships, mood, behaviour, or development that is severe enough to require professional intervention.

Mental health disorder

A mental health disorder is a severe problem (commonly persistent) or the co-occurrence of a number of problems, usually in the presence of several risk factors.

Mental health issues to be aware of:


Anxiety is related to fear. It can either be generalised or specific to a situation or object. For example, it could be related to school or separation from a parent. For a problem to be classified as a disorder, behaviour needs to present as an exaggeration of normal developmental trends.


Statistics from Young Minds estimate that one per cent of children and three per cent of adolescents suffer from depression in any one year.

Symptoms of depression include sadness, irritability, and loss of interest in activities.

Associated features include changes in appetite, sleep disturbance and tiredness, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and potentially, suicidal thoughts. Talking therapies are a good treatment for depression and sometimes medication can also be helpful.

Conduct disorder

Rather than simple misbehaviour, which is a normal sign of child development. Conduct disorder can be defined as misbehaviour which:

  • is long lasting
  • violates the rights of others
  • is aggressive
  • is deceitful
  • goes against accepted norms of behaviour
  • severely disrupts everyday life


Statistics taken from YoungMinds/Cello research into children and young people and self-harm show that roughly two children in every classroom will have self-harmed.

Eating disorders

Girls and young women aged between 12-20 are most at risk. At least 20 per cent of cases are boys and men.

What can you do to promote mental wellbeing?

As an adult in a position of responsibility, there are a number of ways in which you can promote mental well being:

  • By creating a positive culture where everyone is helped to understand the positive impact they can have on young people’s’ mental health
  • In a school setting, everyone from the midday supervisors, to the school counsellor and the senior leaders should be aware of the positive impact they can have and should be empowered to create safe and nurturing spaces and relationships with young people and make the most of all interactions
  • By listening non-judgmentally
  • By acknowledging the young person’s emotional distress
  • By encouraging the young person to identify their own support network and encourage them to access other types of support
  • By recognising your limitations and referring to appropriate services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), when necessary
  • Making sure that you have the time and space to reflect and look after yourself too. Dealing with complex behaviour and young people struggling with their mental health can be draining, upsetting and exhausting. It is important to debrief with managers or peers to ensure that you are well supported

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