How should we define mental health?

What is the first thing that comes in your mind when you hear the word mental health? For a good number of people, that would be something related to any mental health condition such as anxiety, depression or personality disorders. It is easy to think that the definition of mental health is straightforward, and most people would think that it has a direct link to mental health conditions. However, sometimes the terms mental health and mental health condition are used as if they mean the same thing. This can create the assumption that people with the symptoms of any diagnosed mental health condition automatically have bad mental health, and people without any symptoms automatically have good mental health and are fine. However, this assumption is far from the reality, which leads to the question, how do we really define mental health?

Lets start by looking at a current definition of mental health. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.This definition implies thatyour mental health about your wellbeing, and suggests that some characteristics that mentally healthy people have is a sense of contentment and purpose with their lives, the flexibility to learn new skills, as well as being able to cope with the setbacks that life inevitably brings. These implications seem reasonable, however there are still things that we can question about this definition. For example, should mental health be defined as a state? And what defines the normal stresses of life?

A common model used to describe mental health is the mental health continuum, which can be found here. On one end of the spectrum are people with strong mental health, who are happy and content with their lives and are able to deal with any challenge that comes their way. On the other end of the spectrum are people with serious mental health issues, which has a very negative impact on their life on a daily basis. This spectrum implies that mental health is a continuous thing and not like an on and off switch where we either have good mental health or not. However, in my opinion there are shortcomings to this model. For example, if we are saying that mental health is about wellbeing, then there is emotional well-being, social well-being, and physiological wellbeing which raises the question, should we be considering all three of these separately rather than in one model?

In my opinion, when thinking about mental health we should still account for the fact that there is some link between the terms mental health and mental health condition, as, bad mental health can lead to having the symptoms of a mental health condition, and having a diagnosed mental health condition can impact ones wellbeing. Therefore, we cannot consider either term in isolation. But the key distinction that we must make is that the term mental health refers to wellness, and the term mental health condition refers to illness and therefore we cannot think of them as the same. If we use the terms mental health condition and mental health as if they mean the same thing then we risk not understanding the fact that someone can have poor mental health even if they don’t have the symptoms of a mental health condition.

What are the key takeaways from this? The first obvious takeaway is that mental health is relevant for every one of us, regardless of whether you have the symptoms of a mental illness or not. However, another thing to take away from this is that despite the World Health Organisation definition and the mental health continuum, good mental health means different things to different people, and in reality there is no concrete and definite definition of the term mental health.


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