Mental health

Paper summary: Attitudes to mental health problems and mental wellbeing

This paper presents new findings on attitudes to mental wellbeing and mental health problems. Levels of life satisfaction are high, and most people have positive attitudes towards improving their own mental wellbeing. However, there are varying levels of acceptance of those with mental health problems, and perceptions of prejudice towards people with these conditions are still widespread.

Key findings

  • Most people are confident they know what it means to have good mental wellbeing. People are aware of different factors that impact on their mental wellbeing and the things they can do to improve it. 
  • Levels of acceptance are higher for a person with depression than schizophrenia. Perceptions of workplace prejudice have improved over time, but the view that someone with a mental health problem would be just as likely to be promoted as anyone else is still only held by a minority.


In 2015 Public Health England (PHE) commissioned sets of questions on NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) to measure public attitudes to four subject areas - alcohol, obesity, dementia and mental wellbeing.

This paper presents analysis of the results of the questions about mental health problems and mental wellbeing. It covers two main themes - knowledge and awareness about mental wellbeing and stigma associated with mental health problems.

The survey included 40 questions about mental health; the stigma questions had previously been included on either BSA or the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, BSA’s sister survey. The rest of the questions, including the questions about mental wellbeing, were developed through a process of questionnaire design and piloting.

Carried out annually since 1983 [1], BSA is an authoritative source of data on the views of the British public. It uses a random probability sampling methodology to yield a representative sample of adults aged 18+ living in private households in Britain. The majority of questions are asked by an interviewer face-to-face in the form of a Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI), while a smaller number are answered by respondents in a self-completion booklet. Questions relating to mental health were included in both sections of the survey.

Data collection was carried out between July and November 2015 and the overall response rate was 51%. The achieved sample for the face-to-face questions on mental health was 2140; the achieved sample for the self-completion questions was 1812. The data have been weighted to account for non-response bias and calibrated to match the population profile on the basis of age, sex and region. All differences described in the text (between different groups of people) are statistically significant at the 95% level or above, unless otherwise specified.

Wider context

One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2009). As well as affecting those individuals, this has wider impacts on healthcare and the economy. The government’s mental health strategy (Department of Health, 2011) sets out objectives for improving both mental wellbeing in the population and public understanding of mental health. Two of the strategy’s aims are to ensure that individuals look after their own mental health better and to challenge stigma and negative attitudes.

Public messages that encourage good mental health, such as the Five Ways to Wellbeing (these are Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give), draw on evidence-based strategies about the steps individuals can take to improve mental wellbeing (Government Office for Science, 2008). Our questions on this subject, discussed in the first section of this paper, draw on the concepts on which these initiatives are based.

Recent government policy has prioritised reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems. A 2014 Department of Health (DH) report included a priority action to stamp out discrimination in order to “help millions of people affected by mental health problems to fulfil their potential as active and equal citizens” (DH, 2014:33). In 2016 an independent report into mental health recognised the stigma and marginalisation faced by people with mental health problems. The report calls for an integrated physical and mental health approach, promoting good mental health and preventing poor mental health, and sees ending stigma as “vital” (Mental Health Taskforce, 2016:17). The second section of this paper explores levels of prejudice towards people with mental health problems.

[1] Apart from in 1988 and 1992 when its core funding was used to fund the British Election Study series.

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