FEELING frazzled? Me too – though thankfully,my problem isn’t serious. I know this because I just took the Mental Health Foundation’s online stress test and scored 21 out of 40, which is apparently “moderate” according to something called the “perceived stress scale”. I’m also informed by the website that “on average, people who complete our Be Mindful course reduce their stress level by 34 per cent. This would bring your score down to 14. Sound good? Find out more by starting our digital mindfulness course now …”

Tempting as it is to let online mindfulness trainers help me stay “in touch with the present moment”, avoid “negative thoughts” and so on, I decide instead to do the test again, cheating this time by pretending that over the past month, I’ve “very often” felt that things were going my way and “almost never” feared I couldn’t cope.

This time I score a pleasingly sanguine eight of 40 – a “low” score, the site informs me, though curiously, it still recommends signing up to the four-weekly mindfulness course, which apparently would help cut my score to five.

Being bloody-minded I take the test yet again, cheating like mad this time by ticking boxes in a way that suggests I’ve just endured a month from hell, thus successfully clocking up the top score of 40 and fully expecting to be directed to my nearest A&E.

But what do you know? “On average,” I’m told, “people who complete our Be Mindful course reduce their stress level by 34 per cent. This would bring your score down to 25 ...”

The invitation to complete the online stress test – and thereafter sign up for the £30 mindfulness course – comes at the end of an animated resume of the Mental Health Foundation’s (MHF) major new study, which was released on Monday at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. Conducted by YouGov and polling more than 4,000 adults online – presumably in a more scientific manner than the aforementioned questionnaire – the survey set out to answer the question Stress: Are We Coping? And the answer, judging by the responses, is “not very well”.

The most dramatic finding was that three-quarters of respondents had at some point during the past year felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope”.

Of those who had felt stressed, 16 per cent had self-harmed, 32 per cent had had suicidal thoughts, half had felt depressed and significant numbers had started drinking or smoking. Women reported more stress than men and young people were worse-affected than their elders, with 49 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds citing comparing themselves to others as a source of stress and 60 per cent troubled by “pressure to succeed”.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the study’s release triggered a rash of newspaper reports, each accompanied by a photograph of a young man or woman with their head in their hands and some with alarming headlines proclaiming that stress was damaging our health and even “driving women to the brink of suicide”.

For anyone still in doubt about the state of the nation’s psyche, Mental Health Awareness Week brought yet more troubling statistical bulletins, including the Aviva insurance company’s Wellbeing Report, which declared that 67 per cent of us are suffering from stress, and Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index, which showed that 44 per cent of us have experienced “stress, low mood and anxiety” in our current jobs.

Should we be worried? Clearly, those statistics about self-harm and suicide are deeply concerning. But some of the others – such as the numbers who sometimes feel crap at work or MHF’s finding that 90 per cent of students find exams stressful – could be said to be stating the obvious. Work sucks and exams can be nerve-wracking – who knew?

If that sounds cynical, it surely does no harm to remind ourselves that a certain amount of adversity has always been part of the human lot. Indeed, generations that endured the constant threat of disease, starvation and infant mortality must have had to deal with a huge amount of what we now call stress, even if the term wasn’t coined until the 1930s. But since no-one bothered to record their feelings, it’s hard to know whether there is anything remarkable about contemporary stress levels, despite alarming reports that we’re in the grip of a full-blown “epidemic” that is “spiralling out of control”.

Survey compilers can’t be blamed for headline writers’ purple prose, of course, and MHF is careful to point out that “stress is not a mental health problem in and of itself”. The term, the report explains, describes the body’s response to “pressures from a situation or life events” such as “experiencing something that threatens your competence/ego and a feeling of little control over a situation”. Encountering these “stressors” triggers the production of the hormone cortisol. And while we need a bit of pressure to handle nerve-wracking situations such as running a marathon or giving a speech, being exposed to it too often puts us into a constant state of “fight or flight” alert – and it’s this feeling of being “overwhelmed or unable to cope” that concerns MHF, whose report ends with seven recommendations, including sensible calls for better services for people in crisis as well as a plea for “more research on the prevalence of stress”.

Do we really need more of this stuff? MFH director Isabella Goldie said last week that although stress is “one of the great public health challenges of our time”, it “still isn’t being taken as seriously as physical health concerns”.

By choosing to focus on something like stress, which almost everyone has experienced, MHF clearly hopes to help normalise a subject that continues to be stigmatised. But some critics argue that blurring the lines between ordinary life experiences and serious mental illness is unhelpful. In her 2006 book, The Truth About Stress, Angela Patmore wrote that our preoccupation with what she considered a “bogus” condition was simply helping to line the pockets of a lucrative stress management industry and turn us all into “sufferers”. And last week on Twitter, sociologist Frank Furedi dismissed the proliferation of statistics on the subject as “propaganda that cultivates our sense of powerlessness”.

“Stress is part of our human condition and it can be a very creative experience,” he says. “It can make us do stuff in ways we wouldn’t if we weren’t stressed. If we just lie back and think nice thoughts, we’d never actually do anything constructive and transformative.” The trouble with all these studies is they “turn stress into a disease rather than a condition of human life. And the more you treat stress as a kind of illness, the more people will play the part that’s been assigned to them and you end up being complicit in creating a public health problem where there really wasn’t one beforehand”.

Suggesting that the ordinary, everyday experience of stress puts you on the slippery slope towards serious psychiatric illness is, he argues, “a form of scaremongering” which does “a grave disservice to the people who are facing genuine mental health problems” by distracting attention and NHS resources towards what are essentially cultural issues.

The preoccupation with workplace stress is a case in point: Furedi cites the example of an NHS human resources manager who organised an away-day to let employees talk about stress. “In the couple of weeks after the event, the number of people reporting stress massively increased, because they had become educated into reinterpreting their life in this almost medical sense.”

As for all those “generation in crisis” headlines, Furedi views the high level of stress reported by young people as symptomatic of the way we have raised our children. “We’ve socialised these young kids to be stressed out, anxious and disoriented. Everything they hear from nursery to primary school to university onwards encourages them to think in this way and to perceive themselves as vulnerable, powerless and unable to cope.

“When I look at young men of my son’s generation they are complaining about pressure of work. I ask what is the pressure of work? They’ve got to get up in the morning and work until 5pm and for them it’s unthinkable that such a high level of pressure should be placed on them. Organisations like the Mental Health Foundation as well as the adult society have been complicit in making young people feel far less able to be independent than in previous times and I think it’s a national tragedy.”

Speaking as someone who would never get anything done without the pressure of a deadline, Furedi’s iconoclastic defence of stress as an unpleasant but necessary fact of life strikes a chord with me. But the University of Glasgow’s health psychology chair, Professor Rory O’Connor, is convinced that studies like those published last week play an important role in “continuing the discussion into mental health and how we respond to it and ensuring that mental health is treated equally with physical health”.

Indeed, O’Connor, who is director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, argues that opening up the conversation around psychological issues saves lives. He spearheaded the recent University of Glasgow-led report into mental health among 18 to 34-year-olds, which found that one in nine have attempted suicide, almost one in four have had suicidal thoughts and one in six have self-harmed.

“People kill themselves because they feel trapped by their psychological pain,” he says. “If you are repeatedly experiencing stress, it interferes with your cortisol system and, psychologically, you’re much more likely to become worn down and feel trapped. If you feel trapped by life’s circumstances and feel you’re always encountering stress, then some people can’t see anything changing in the future and the pain becomes unbearable.”

But do last week’s surveys genuinely reflect the levels of distress in the population? After all, according to the MHF, women report more stress than men and the University of Glasgow’s own report found that women are significantly more likely to report suicide attempts and self-harm – but we know that men are far more likely to kill themselves.

If women are reporting stress, they are feeling it, says O’Connor: “I’d flip it around and say we need to be careful we are not missing the scale of distress in men.”

So what about the suggestion people are no more distressed today than previous generations? “In Scotland, we don’t know that because our study is the first study of its kind ever conducted here. However, if you look across the UK at hospital presentations for self-harm, I think everyone would agree that they have increased, although there’s debate about to what extent. The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey in England suggests people are reporting suicidal thoughts, self-harm and suicide attempts more now than they were 10 or 15 years ago. So I think it’s a genuine increase.”

Where young people are concerned, he believes social media may be adding to a sense of entrapment. “When I was a kid, someone who was being bullied at school could find solace when they came home. But arguably with the advent of social media you often don’t have an off-switch, because social media means that pressure is there 24/7.”

Helping young people develop resilience towards stress is a priority, he says, adding that it’s well known people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more at risk. Finally, he adds: “What I’d like to come out of Mental Health Awareness Week is people feeling confident that if they are worried about a family member, friend or colleague, they can ask how they are feeling and not be frightened about asking, in a compassionate and sensitive way, whether they are suicidal. Because that question is the first step in getting somebody help and support. There is support out there if the answer is yes.”

It’s a sober note to end on, and should remind us that ensuring those services are available to people in urgent need must be a national priority.

Frank Furedi argues that while we focus on a condition that’s a normal part of human life, he has friends with serious depression who have struggled to access professional help. Meanwhile, here in Scotland, it was reported last week that almost 1,000 adults waited more than a year for mental health treatment in the year 2017-18.

That’s one statistic that should worry us all. So is the fact that the poverty, disadvantage and other social factors that increase the risk of mental health problems remain entrenched – and mindfulness won’t help.

Mental Health Awareness Week ends today. Frank Furedi’s new book, How Fear Works: The Culture Of Fear In The 21st Century, is published next month by Bloomsbury