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Where do we get the help that really counts?

Updated Wednesday, 9 March 2022
When only one third of people with mental health symptoms access formal channels of support due to funding problems or stigma, is informal support from family and friends just as good? 

Quite often talking is the best form of therapy and having someone who knows you, who you can confide in and can talk back to you on a personal level based on the fact they know you, can sometimes be very comforting. (Service user quoted in Leach, 2015)

two people hugging in black and white BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme, in partnership with The Open University, invited listeners to nominate a person or an organisation that had gone the extra mile in helping them deal with a mental health problem. A striking feature of the short-listed entries for the 2016 All in the Mind Awards was the valuable help that has come from sources outside of mainstream health services. For instance: a neighbour, pop-up cake shops, a support group using community facilities such as the local pub, a bicycle maintenance project, a general practitioner, an employer, a family member as well as care workers from community-based organisations.

Informal sources of support are used by a wide range of people in distress whether or not they are recognised as having a mental health problem. It has long been known that there are many more people experiencing mental distress than those who seek or get medical help. An important study by Goldberg and Huxley (1992) found that

  • For every 1000 adults in the general population between 260 and 315 were likely to be experiencing significant psychological distress at a level that could adversely affect their lives.
  • However, only 101 of these people would have their condition recognised by a doctor
  • Furthermore, only 23 people would be referred on to specialist mental health services.

More recent studies have shown that the picture has not changed much since the time of that study and that only about a third of people with symptoms of mental health problems access formal channels of support and treatment (Savage et al, 2015).

Those people that do get professional help still value other forms of support with informal sources being widely used. In a survey about support for mental health problems in the UK (Open University 2011) 71% of respondents reported receiving informal support from family and friends.

Get professional help, but confide in people closest to you also. It’s hard to get by with no support from your friends or family, the medical profession can’t hug you and make it better. (Service user quoted in Leach, 2015)

Although having a wide range of social contacts can promote wellbeing, one study suggests that mental health problems may only discussed in depth with one or two key people (Perry and Pescosolido, 2010). So individuals who can really listen, empathise and offer support during times of difficulty can make a significant difference. This research found that family members were highly valued in discussions about mental health issues, being the first choice of 42% of respondents, compared to 24% who favoured health professionals and 19% who discussed their condition with friends. If the distressed individual had a close relationship with the person with whom they discussed their mental health they were more likely to be satisfied with any support  services they used, more likely to report an increase in their mental health and to feel more optimistic about their chances of recovery.

It is important to realise that there can be a number of barriers to asking for help. Unfortunately the stigma often attached to having a mental health condition can make some people reluctant to speak about their problems. Sometimes they may feel that nothing can be done to help them or that they shouldn’t bother busy professionals with their problems (Meltzer, 2000). So more informal ways of accessing support can be very important and contact with someone who is non-judgemental and willing to listen can help in making the first steps towards recovery.

It is not only family and friends who can help; support from other people who have been through similar problems (peer support) has become increasingly popular and much support has come through the work of voluntary sector organisations. On-line discussion boards and telephone helplines also continue to play an important role in helping people who don’t know who else to turn to or who don’t want to talk to friends and family about their problems. MIND provides information on sources of support as does the Mental Health Foundation.

The very moving stories that emerged from the nominations for the All in the Mind Awards demonstrate how a willingness to reach out for help, combined with an understanding and supportive response from key individuals, can make a real difference in the journey to recovery from mental health problems.


Goldberg, D. and Huxley, P.  (1992) Common Mental Disorders: A Bio-social Model. London: Routledge

Leach, J. (2015) Improving Mental Health through Social Support: Building Positive and Empowering Relationships, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Meltzer, H., Bebbington, P., Brugha, T., Farrell, M., Jenkins, R. and Lewis, G. (2000) ‘The reluctance to seek help for neurotic disorders.’ Journal of Mental Health  9, 3, 319-327

Open University (2011) ‘Mental healthcare services survey: the results.’

Perry, B., and  Pescosolido, B. (2010) ‘Functional specificity in discussion networks: The influence of general and problem-specific networks on health outcomes.’ Social Networks 32, 4, 345-357

Savage, H., Murray, J., Hatch, S.L., Hotopf, M., Evans-Lacko, S. and Brown, J.S., 2015. Exploring professional help-seeking for mental disorders. Qualitative health research, p.1049732315591483

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