Available treatment methods have shown little effect on the burden associated with mental health disorders. We review promising universal, selective, and indicated preventive mental health strategies that might reduce the incidence of mental health disorders, or shift expected trajectories to less debilitating outcomes. Some of these interventions also seem to be cost-effective. In the transition to mental illness, the cumulative lifetime effect of multiple small effect size risk factors progressively increases vulnerability to mental health disorders. This process might inform different levels and stages of tailored interventions to lessen risk, or increase protective factors and resilience, especially during sensitive developmental periods. Gaps between knowledge, policy, and practice need to be bridged. Future steps should emphasise mental health promotion, and improvement of early detection and interventions in clinical settings, schools, and the community, with essential support from society and policy makers.