This page provides key information to explain what personal wellbeing is and will help build your understanding of its complexity as a risk factor to suicide.
- What is personal wellbeing?
- The importance of personal wellbeing in suicide prevention
- Prevalence of personal wellbeing
- ZSA Suicide Prevention Resource Map - key takeaways
- Life course of personal wellbeing
- Predisposing factors of personal wellbeing
- Consequences of poor personal wellbeing
- Impact of COVID-19
- National guidelines for practice
- Key approaches
- Case studies
- ZSA Suicide Prevention Resource Map - related indicators
Wellbeing is formally defined as a state of health, regarding to mental, physical and social wellbeing (World Health Organisation, 2006). The term mental wellbeing is separated into two components:
- Feeling good, such as happiness and life satisfaction.
- Functioning well, which relates to psychological wellbeing and consists of personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life.
Personal wellbeing is a person’s evaluation of their own lives, acknowledging how they feel and think about themselves and determining how satisfied they are with their life in general. Personal wellbeing represents a personal aspect of quality of life and encompasses both physical and psychological aspects of wellbeing, with these being fundamentally linked.
It is also important to make the distinction between a person’s psychological wellbeing and the presence of a mental illness. Mental illness goes beyond the natural fluctuation of psychological wellbeing, whereby a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are significantly affected and impact their every day functioning as a result (World Health Organisation, 2019).
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) breaks personal wellbeing down into four components; life satisfaction, anxiety, happiness and feeling that things done in life are worthwhile. These components have been identified as a comprehensive way of measuring the general public’s wellbeing, enabling the monitoring of trends across different communities within the UK and seeing how these change over time.
Four measures of personal wellbeing (ONS, 2018):
Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
On a scale where 0 is “not at all anxious” and 10 is “completely anxious”, overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
Table 1 – Measures of personal wellbeing; life satisfaction, worthwhile, happiness and anxiety, and their corresponding question on the Annual Population Survey.
Thresholds for scores of personal wellbeing are described below (ONS, 2018):
Life satisfaction, worthwhile, happiness
0 to 4
5 to 6
7 to 8
9 to 10
0 to 1
2 to 3
4 to 5
6 to 10
*Note that anxiety is scored differently compared to the other measures of personal wellbeing. Contribution of the anxiety score to measuring wellbeing is also reversed (i.e. low anxiety score reflects higher wellbeing)
Table 2 – Rating thresholds for each measures of personal wellbeing; life satisfaction, worthwhile, happiness and anxiety
Maintaining good personal wellbeing is important as can impact a person’s psychological wellbeing. If poor psychological wellbeing is severe or enduring over a prolonged period of time, this can lead to developing a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Deterioration in psychological wellbeing can also trigger a relapse in symptoms from a pre-existing mental health condition and increase the risk of experiencing a mental health crisis. People with a mental health disorder are nearly 8 times more likely to die by suicide (San Too et al., 2019).
Importantly, people who do not have any pre-existing mental health issues can also be vulnerable to a mental health crisis. Stressful life events such as bereavement, unemployment and relationship breakups can result in a sudden decline in a person’s psychological wellbeing and increase their risk of suicide.
Investment in the promotion of mental wellbeing, improves quality of life, life expectancy, educational achievement, economic outcomes, and reduces violence, antisocial behaviour, and crime. Not only this, but it improves mental health and ultimately reduces risk of suicide.
Promoting mental wellbeing should be key elements of every public health strategy because mental wellbeing influences all other health outcomes. Neglecting it undermines public health interventions to reduce both physical and mental health inequalities and prevent premature death from preventable conditions.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, personal wellbeing in the UK has on average improved over time from 2011 to 2020 (see Figure 1) (ONS, 2021). Data collection during the pandemic revealed that lockdown had a negative impact on all four measures of personal wellbeing (satisfaction, worthwhileness, happiness and anxiety). See the ‘Impact of COVID-19’ section below to read more.
Refer to Table 1 and 2 for a breakdown of the wellbeing measure thresholds.
Figure 1 – Measures of personal wellbeing over time in the UK from June 2011 to September 2020 using the Annual Population Survey (APS)
Personal well-being was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal wellbeing and the ratings for feeling that things done in life are worthwhile, happiness and anxiety have since recovered to levels seen pre-pandemic.
Figure 2– Measures of personal wellbeing over time in the UK from June 2011 to June 2021 using the Annual Population Survey (APS)
There are issues with gathering data to form a complete picture of mental wellbeing in the UK. Up until now, measurements have focused on measuring mental health problems rather than mental wellbeing. It is now important to consider what the key indicators are for mental wellbeing to gain a full picture.
Also see our National Dashboards for more information on wellbeing in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with comparisons benchmarked to national averages.
The ZSA Suicide Prevention Resource Map identifies that according to the Annual Population Survey from the year 2020/21:
- Average score for how anxious those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday vary from 3 to 4 across England (threshold for ‘low’ and ‘medium’ rating for anxiety).
- Average score for how anxious those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday vary across England with a grouping of local authorities within the London area with some of the highest across anxiety scores.
- Average score for how anxious those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday have groupings of the lowest relative scores in the South West and North East.
- Average score for how happy those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday vary from 7 to 8 across the England (threshold for ‘high’ rating of happiness).
- Average score for how happy those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday have groupings of the lowest relative scores in the North West and the Midlands.
- Average score for how happy those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday have the highest relative groupings in other areas of the South East and South West.
- Average score for life satisfaction for those responding to the annual population survey vary from 7 to 8 across England (threshold for ‘high’ rating of life satisfaction). See Table 2.
- Average score for life satisfaction for those responding to the annual population survey have groupings of the lowest relative scores in the London area, Midlands, North and North East.
- Average score for life satisfaction for those responding to the annual population survey have groupings of the highest relative scores in the South West, West Midlands and the North.
- Average score for feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile those responding to the annual population survey vary across England range from 7 to 8 (threshold for ‘high’ rating of worthwhile).
- Average score for feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile those responding to the annual population survey have groups of the lowest relative life satisfaction scores in the London area, Midlands, North and North East.
- Average score for feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile those responding to the annual population survey have groupings of the highest relative satisfaction scores in the Midlands and the South West.
*Refer to Table 1 and 2 for the questions from the Annual Population Survey and for the rating thresholds for each measure.
Personal well-being is influenced by both internal and external factors. How people interpret and engage with those external factors will not only influence their well-being, but will also be influenced by their current experience of wellbeing.
Personal well-being fluctuates over time and can change in response to stressful events in every day life (ONS, 2016). Certain positive factors may act as ‘protection’ from risk.
Previous research has shown the relationship between age and personal well-being to be U-shaped (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2008). This means that sense of personal well-being is highest among younger people and older people and is lowest among people in their middle years.
Understanding more about how different age groups rate their personal wellbeing will help policy makers target groups in most need of support and are informed about the key factors that contribute to experiences of well-being.
Children’s experiences of personal wellbeing in their early years has a significant impact on their well-being in later life. Wellbeing is important during this time as it is thought to influence the way in which an individual copes with key life events such as stress, trauma and physical ill-health in later life.
Over three quarters of all mental health problems emerge by adolescence (Mental Health Foundation, 2021) making childhood experiences vital in future mental wellbeing.
Public Health England (2015) identify key factors that contribute to personal wellbeing in children. They include:
- Individual: Factors which are experienced by an individual e.g. general health, learning and development, and life events
- Family: Factors which relate to a child or young person’s family and home environment e.g. family attachment, family structure, parental health, and mental health. These are particularly key as shape a child’s social and emotional development
- Learning environment: Factors which influence how a child or young person learns, both within and outside of a formal learning environment e.g. educational environment, peer relationships and pressures or expectations
- Community: Elements of a child’s wider social and geographic environment which influence their mental wellbeing e.g. trust, social inclusion, support, safety, violence, discrimination, and culture
For more information, visit our Facts for Action series on Children and Young People.
The transition into young adulthood is influenced by emotional, social, and physical changes, and is often a time for developing a sense of self and identity. These changes are central to personal wellbeing experienced in young adulthood.
The ONS identify that for Young Adults aged 16-19 and 20-34 have high ratings of personal well-being which may be explained by having more free time to partake in activities to promote their wellbeing, and having less employment demands (ONS, 2018). However, key challenges include unemployment, loneliness, having someone to rely on and lacking a sense of belonging to their community.
The Mental Health Foundation (2016) identify other factors that may contribute to the vulnerabilities of poor personal wellbeing.
For adolescents, risk factors include:
- Transitions in family life e.g. moving home, bereavement, or separation of parents
- Changes from school to workplace
- Poor family functioning
- Chronic illness and obesity
- High demand academic environments
Protective factors are positive family functioning, social support (including online), community support, and physical activity.
For young adults, risk factors include:
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Financial concerns
- Transitions in life such as homelessness or moving to university
- Being a sexual minority
- Life stressors
Protective factors are physical activity and strong social relationships.
Transitions during adulthood have been identified as an important phase of life for health, happiness, and wellbeing (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). Adults may experience low mental well-being compared to younger ages and experiencing two or more adverse life events in adulthood is associated with lower mental well-being. For some, this can have a cumulative effect following on from experiences in childhood.
ONS (2018 ) report that adults aged 35 to 54 have the lowest rates of personal wellbeing. Even though people in their early and middle years (mainly aged 25 to 54) were generally more likely to be in employment, but less likely to be satisfied with their leisure time. This may be caused by struggles to juggle both work and family and burdens of care.
For adults, risk factors include:
- Poor family relationships
- Taking on care roles for ill family members
- Workplace stress or unemployment
- Living in deprived communities
- Poor physical health
- Substance misuse
The decline of personal well-being measures for those in adulthood has also indicated that the government, employers, and businesses should have a larger involvement of improving the wellbeing of this group.
A common perception is that the older adults experience low levels of well-being. Research by the ONS (2018) shows otherwise; older adults aged 65 to 75 had the highest ratings of all measurements of personal well-being compared to any other age group. This age group is more likely to be satisfied with their income, leisure time, feeling that they can cope financially and belong to their community.
Aside from living circumstances, there are some theories that may explain this finding. One theory is the ‘socioemotional selectivity theory’ which theorises that as time horizons shrink throughout ageing, older adults tend to shift their focus towards emotionally meaningful goals (Huxhold, Fiori & Windsor, 2013). As a result, older adults focus on positive emotional experiences throughout their lifetime rather than negative ones, help shaping their experiences of well-being.
On the other hand, personal wellbeing declines in those aged 75 and over. The fall in ratings of personal well-being amongst the oldest age groups might result from a range of personal circumstances such as poor health, living alone, feelings of loneliness and lower engagement in art or a cultural activity (ONS, 2018).
For older adults, risk factors include:
- Loneliness and isolation
- No engagement within communities
- Cognitive decline
- Caring for spouse. There are approximately 3.3 million people in UK over the age of fifty in a caring role for a disabled, seriously ill or older relative or friend; many of whom face their own health problems in addition to coping with the needs of the person they are caring for )
- Bereavement of friends and family members
Protective factors include retirement, living close to family members and being apart of a close-knit community.
Personal wellbeing is shaped and influenced by several psychological, physical, social and environmental factors. Social factors have been widely noted as a key contributor personal well-being. For example, people with lower wellbeing are likely to have experienced distressing events in early childhood and with stressful events in adulthood (e.g. relationship breakdown, bereavement). These experiences are also significant in the predisposition of poor psychological well-being and overall mental health.
Key societal factors:
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Relationships and marital status
- Insecure attachments in childhood
- Parental mental health problems
- Care roles
- Becoming homeless
- Stressful life events such as moving home, divorce or death
- Working or learning environment
- Low income
- Unsafe social environments such as abuse or domestic violence
- Stigma and discrimination
- Substance misuse
Other influencing factors include psychological, physical and environmental factors.
A person’s internal state and aptitude
Key to maintaining well-being is the development of healthy strategies to help us cope with stress. Even though everyone experiences stress throughout their lives, having healthy psychological strategies to help us cope and manage emotional challenges increases a person’s capacity to recover from them, which in turn promotes high levels of well-being (Schultze-Lutter, Schimmelmann and Schmidt, 2016).
General health, illness and disability
Poor general health is both a response to and a driver of poor well-being. In the UK it has been found that poor health has the strongest association with poor well-being, whilst high personal well-being is associated with better physical health outcomes, increased longevity, and better cardiovascular health (The Department of Health, 2014).
People with disabilities are also at greater risk of poor general health and well-being, as well as face greater barriers to accessing health services than people without disabilities. In the UK, people with disabilities are twice as likely to report that they have poor well-being (ONS, 2018), and are also four times more likely to report feeling lonely “often” or “always” compared to those who are not disabled (ONS, 2019).
Deprivation is defined as a lack of money, resources, and access to life opportunities or being in a position of relative disadvantage (having significantly less resource than others). Deprivation and other societal and demographic factors is linked to experiencing poorer personal well-being (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
Research has found that deprivation is strongly related to lower life satisfaction and poorer mental well-being, with unemployment having a significant negative impact on life satisfaction (Bellis et al., 2012).
Poor wellbeing has significant consequences on physical inequalities such as health and longevity, with research identifying that life expectancy is reduced up to 10 years in those who report low levels of personal well-being (Zaninotto & Steptoe, 2019). Positive wellbeing acts as a protective role in the course of physical illness, therefore promoting well-being is vital for health benefits in the UK population.
People that report low levels of wellbeing often engage in behaviours that have consequences on physical health, which can contribute to the reduced life expectancy. For example, poorer well-being is likely to predict higher levels of smoking and increased consumption of unhealthy food (NatCen., 2008).
There is clear evidence that identifies the relationship between mental health and substance use. In regard to well-being, research has identified that people with poorer personal well-being are more likely to drink alcohol at hazardous and harmful levels (Appleton, James & Larsen, 2018). This has a snowball effect with hazardous alcohol consumption leading to a reduction of life expectancy and an increased risk of developing health conditions and mental health conditions.
People that report poor well-being often experience symptoms of poor mental health, putting them at a higher risk of developing mental health issues. Poor life satisfaction is a large determinant of mental health, in which it has a significant interaction with depression symptoms and major depressive disorder (Mental Health Foundation, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people in many ways and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Large scale survey work by the ONS over the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that ratings of life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety across the UK had all deteriorated for the first time since the initiation of the survey collection in 2011, with almost half of the UK population (49.6%) reporting high levels of anxiety (ONS, 2020). The ONS also found that England was the only country in the UK to experience a significant reduction in life satisfaction ratings, with the steepest deterioration in the North and South East of England (ONS, 2020).
Levels have since improved after the end of lockdown, but a more recent ONS survey found that poor mental health is enduring, with one in five adults experiencing symptoms of depression in early 2021, which is double that of pre-pandemic figures (ONS, 2021).
Loneliness and isolation
During a time when support from family and friends were limited, feelings periods of self-isolation have influenced acute and prolonged negative consequences on wellbeing, increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Reviews of Samaritan helpline calls over lockdown found that concerns raised were particularly common among men and young people, with loneliness and social isolation being a key theme in 44% of calls (Samaritans, 2020). Disruption in routine daily activities including work, school and leisure activities, and restricted contact with family and friends, as imposed during government mandated lockdowns have not been without cost and risk.
Groups found to be at risk of developing poorer mental health (such as anxiety and depression) include those with pre-existing mental health conditions, carers, older people, adults with low household income, people with physical health conditions and parents living with children were found to experience poorer psychological well-being over lockdown than their counterparts (Centre of Mental Health, 2020; Fancourt, Steptoe & Bu, 2021).
Aside from social isolation, there are a myriad of stressors arising from the pandemic that have affected the well-being of different age groups. For example, young people have experienced numerous disruptions in their education (e.g. home schooling, online learning, exam cancellation), limited contact with friends and support networks, increased exposure to domestic abuse, loss of part time jobs and difficulty entering the job market after leaving school (Lee, 2020; Das et al., 2020). Children from poorer backgrounds being particularly impacted by school disruptions, with limited access to digital based learning resources.
Impacts on wellbeing and mental health have also been observed in the adult population between the ages of 21 to 40, this age group representing the key active workforce (Salari et al., 2020). The pandemic presented many economic issues including being put on furlough, loss of jobs and housing problems.
Disruptions to occupational sectors were found to vary to different extents, with sectors such as retail, hospitality, construction, rail transport, aviation, creative arts and travel agencies being some of the hardest hit (ONS, 2020; Debata and Patnaik, 2020). People working in these sectors are likely to be impacted by considerable stress and are therefore more at risk poorer wellbeing.
The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health published by the NHS in 2016 outlined a long-term transformation of mental health services (NHS, 2016). The plan included detailed changes that would improve outcomes for mental health and well-being.
The following NICE guidelines and accompanying quality standards are directly relevant to the assessment and interventions relating to personal well-being.
- Social and emotional well-being: Early years (PH40)
- Social and emotional well-being in primary education (PH12)
- Social and emotional well-being in secondary education (PH20)
- Mental well-being in work (PH22)
- Mental well-being in over 65’s: Occupational therapy and physical activity interventions (PH16)
- Older people: independence and mental well-being (NG32)
Approaches to wellbeing have been developed to focus on the conceptual framework of the life course to prevent both mental health, ill health and wellbeing.
Personal wellbeing is influenced throughout life by a range of social, economic and environmental factors, alongside behavioural risk factors. The prevention approach focuses on life stages and considers transitions and settings where mental health, physical health and personal wellbeing can be promoted.
One prevention approach is Public Health England: Health Matters Life Course. This provides actions to address the wider determinants of health which will help improve overall health and improve personal wellbeing. For more information, visit the Public Health England: Health Matters webpage.
This is in line with the ZSA’s approach to the prevention of mental ill health, self harm and suicide, supporting individuals, communities and leaders to use data and technology to enable change and transformation to services.
We aim to provide a range of transformational information, practical tools, and resources to support individuals, organisations and communities tackle the causes of suicide. We believe that to enable system change we must close the gap between data and action. As an organisation, we actively champion the use of data and technology to understand population need and to transform services with the aim of improving population mental health and wellbeing, ultimately supporting the delivery of our basic principle that suicide is preventable.
- Smart Health Communities (Deloitte) – a population approach concept that aims to promote good personal wellbeing and help prevent mental and physical illnesses using data surveillance and concepts of behavioural science.
Visit our Case Study Library to find about more about Smart Health Communities.
- Zero Rated Data – an innovative imitative introduced by the New Zealand government that provided people in lower socioeconomic groups with sponsored mobile phone data to enable them to access physical and mental health resources.
Visit our Case Study Library to find out more about Zero Rated Data.
- Southwark Housing Solution Services – an online go-to resource set up by Southwark Council to provide people with information and expert advice on housing and financial issues. This initiative recognises the serious economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming to support people to find the help they need.
Visit out Case Study Library to find out more about Southwark Housing Solution Services.
- Connect My Community NHS (Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust Community Asset Development Team) – a community peer network initiative that aims to connect groups, projects, initiatives and individuals with other local assets in Central Lancashire.
Visit our Case Study Library to find out more about Connect My Community NHS.
- The What Works Centre for Wellbeing (2020) – published a report on how to identify and improve wellbeing to inform policy and practice in the UK. Provide a series of recommendations for improving well-being within the community.
- Average score for how anxious those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday
- Average score for how happy those responding to the annual population survey reported feeling yesterday
- Average score for life satisfaction for those responding to the annual population survey
- Average score for feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile for those responding to the annual population survey
- Gap in employment rate (%) for people with mental health conditions
- Proportion of residents who are employees in quality work
Income and deprivation
- Index of Multiple Deprivation - Local Authority Score
- Index of Multiple Deprivation - Proportion of Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in the most deprived 10% nationally
- Proportion of people aged 16-64 years claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Incapacity Benefit (IB) or Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA)
- Proportion of households experiencing fuel poverty
- Number of people aged 15 to 64 using opiates or crack per 1,000 population
- Number of alcohol dependent adults per 1,000 population
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Content reviewed and updated on 25/08/22
Case study examples of best and innovative practice
The Life Rooms - social model of health
The Life Rooms sits within Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, a mental health and community Trust in Merseyside. Across the Mersey Care footprint, clinical services are under increased pressure and many communities face poor health outcomes. The Life Rooms Social Model of Health is non-clinical in its aims and approaches, but is positioned to relieve some of the pressure that clinical services face, and work collaboratively to improve health outcomes within communities.