Hesperian Health Guides

Common mental health problems

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 27: Stress and mental health > Common mental health problems

a woman speaking as she stands apart from 2 others who are smiling together.
I am so lonely, and everybody else seems to be happy. What’s wrong with me?

Although there are many kinds of mental health problems, the most common ones are anxiety, depression, and misuse of alcohol or drugs. Stress is not a mental health problem in itself. However, when we are not able to recover from stressful situations, stress builds up in our bodies and minds. When someone can no longer cope with the challenges they face because of the stress they are suffering, then stress has become a problem.

Most people have some signs of stress at different times in their lives, because everyone faces problems at one time or another. Signs of mental health problems can vary from community to community. Some behavior that looks strange to an outsider may be a normal part of a community’s traditions or values. At the same time, behavior that seems normal to an outsider may be considered strange or abnormal in a community. Since many factories include management and workers from foreign countries and cultures, this is important to remember.


When a person experiences stress, the body gets ready to react quickly and fight off or run away from what is causing the stress. These are the same effects caused by fear. Some of the physical changes that occur are:

  • the heart starts beating faster
  • blood pressure goes up
  • breathing speeds up
  • the digestion slows down

If the stress or fear is sudden and severe, you may feel these changes in your body. Then, once the fears or stresses are gone, you will feel your body slowly return to normal. But when fear or stress is less strong, builds up slowly, or continues for a long time, you may not notice the changes that happen in your body because you have grown so accustomed to them.

Anxiety (feeling nervous or worried)

Everyone feels afraid, nervous, or worried from time to time. Usually you know what is causing the feelings and usually they go away soon. But if anxiety continues or becomes more severe, or if it comes without any reason, then it may be a mental health problem. Signs of anxiety include:

  • feeling tense and nervous
  • hands shaking
  • constant sweating
  • heart pounding
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • frequent physical complaints that are not caused by physical illness and that increase when you are upset

A panic attack is a severe kind of anxiety. In addition to the signs above, you will begin taking quick and shallow breaths even without noticing, and feel terror or dread, a strong feeling that something terrible is about to happen, and maybe that you or a co-worker might get sick, have an accident, or die. A panic attack can happen suddenly and can last from several minutes to several hours.

To handle a panic attack, you must make a strong effort to regain control of your breath. Force yourself to take deep breaths. Breathe in as deeply as you can through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Do this for as long as it takes for you to feel like you have control over your breathing. If your friends and family are prepared and know what to do, they can support you.


Stress or anxiety that continues for a long time and finally overwhelms a worker’s ability to cope can lead to “burnout.” Burnout combines feelings of mental and physical exhaustion with a sense of personal isolation. Some physical signs of burnout can be:

  • headaches
  • intestinal problems
  • lack of energy
  • high blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • low sexual desire, inability to enjoy sex
  • difficulty remembering things
  • various muscle and joint pains

Depression (extreme sadness or feeling nothing at all)

It is natural to feel sad at different times in our lives: when a friend or family member is very ill or dies, when you lose a job, or when a marriage or relationship ends. But depression becomes a mental health problem when any of these signs last for a long time:

  • feeling sad most of the time
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • feeling like crying, or crying for no apparent reason
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities, eating, or sex
  • physical problems such as headaches or intestinal problems that are not caused by illness
  • slow speech and movement
  • lack of energy for daily activities
  • thinking about death or suicide

Some people can cope and heal from depression by talking about their problems with another person or support group. Some people also need medicine, called anti-depressants, to get better. Ask at your community health clinic for information, as these medicines may have side effects.

Sometimes depression can lead to other problems, including suicide (killing oneself). Many people might consider suicide when their problems seem bigger than any solution. However, if a person has a plan about how to kill herself, has lost the desire to live, or has tried suicide before, she is more at risk for suicide. She needs help immediately. To help, first try to talk with her. If talking about her problems does not help, or if you are afraid she might hurt herself, then she needs to be watched closely. Talk to her family and friends, but tell her you will be doing so before you do. Encourage someone to be with her at all times. Ask them to remove dangerous objects from her surroundings. If there is a trained mental health worker, find out how she can receive care.

Mental illness

People with mental illness need help from trained mental health workers. A few signs of mental illness are:

  • hearing voices or seeing things that others do not
  • not taking care of oneself
  • behaving in strange ways that are not consistent with a person’s cultural, social, or family beliefs or traditions

Illnesses, toxic chemicals, drugs, or injuries to the head and brain can cause similar signs, so it is important that someone who has these signs gets help as soon as possible. People who suffer from mental illness deserve to be treated with love, dignity, respect, and kindness.

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Alcohol and other drugs

Many kinds of drugs are used in religious rituals or social events, as medicines, or along with a meal. But when a person’s life begins to revolve around consuming drugs, especially alcohol, those drugs can create physical and mental health problems, and make existing problems worse.

People misuse alcohol and other drugs to escape from problems, to reduce stress, or to not feel fear. In societies where workers have little ability to change the conditions of their lives, alcohol and other drugs seem to offer a way to feel better, at least temporarily. In some factories, workers are encouraged or even forced to take drugs that keep them awake. These drugs may be addictive, and it can be hard to stop taking them, even when you are not at work.

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Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol usually make problems worse and leave us less able to improve our lives. Instead of working to improve bad situations, people who misuse drugs or alcohol spend their time, money, and health trying to avoid and forget their problems.

When does use become misuse?

People who are misusing drugs or alcohol often:

  • feel they need a drink or a pill to get through the day or night.
  • use it at unusual times, like the morning, or when they are alone.
  • lie about or hide how much they use.
  • have money problems because they spend so much on drugs or alcohol.
  • become violent against their friends and families.
  • endanger themselves or others by using drugs or alcohol at work.

This page was updated:06 Mar 2018