Information for the public

Common mental health problems

Common mental health problems covered in this information include depression and anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (called OCD for short) and post-traumatic stress disorder (called PTSD for short). Other common mental health problems include phobias about a specific thing (such as spiders) or situations (such as being embarrassed in front of other people). NICE will publish some advice separately for people with a social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder). These mental health problems are called 'common' because combined they affect more people than other mental health problems (up to 15% of people at any one time in the UK). Some people may have more than one mental health problem (such as depression and anxiety).


The main symptoms are feeling 'low' and losing pleasure in things that were once enjoyable. These symptoms may be combined with others, such as feeling tearful, irritable or tired most of the time, changes in appetite, and problems with sleep, concentration and memory. People with depression typically have lots of negative thoughts and feelings of guilt and worthlessness; they often criticise themselves and lack confidence.

Generalised anxiety disorder

The main symptoms are having a number of different worries that are excessive and out of proportion to a particular situation, and having difficulty in controlling one's worries. A person with generalised anxiety disorder may also feel irritable and have physical symptoms such as restlessness, feeling easily tired, and having tense muscles. They may also have trouble concentrating or sleeping.

Panic disorder

The main symptoms are having unexpected and recurring panic attacks, and also worrying about having another panic attack. One of the symptoms of a panic attack is an increased heart rate. A panic attack may happen because of a particular situation (something that the person fears or wants to avoid), or it may have no obvious cause. People who have panic attacks often change their behaviour as a consequence of the attack, which may develop into phobias such as agoraphobia (a fear of being in places or situations that are difficult to escape from).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

The main symptoms are having thoughts, images or impulses that keep coming into the mind and are difficult to get rid of (called obsessions), and a strong feeling that the person must carry out or repeat certain physical acts or mental processes (called compulsions). Common obsessions include being afraid of dirt and germs, worrying that something is not safe (such as an electrical appliance), wanting to have things in a particular order, and thoughts and fears of harming someone else. Common compulsions include excessive washing and cleaning, checking things repeatedly, keeping objects that other people might throw away, and repeating acts, words or numbers in a pattern.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Psychological and physical symptoms that can sometimes follow particular threatening or distressing events. One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is having repeated and intrusive distressing memories of the event. There may also be a feeling of reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares. There can also be physical reactions, such as shaking and sweating.

Mild, moderate and severe mental health problems

The terms mild, moderate and severe are used in this information to describe different levels of mental health problems.

A mild mental health problem is when a person has a small number of symptoms that have a limited effect on their daily life.

A moderate mental health problem is when a person has more symptoms that can make their daily life much more difficult than usual.

A severe mental health problem is when a person has many symptoms that can make their daily life extremely difficult.

A person may experience different levels at different times.

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