What is mental health?

What is mental health?

‘Mental health’ is a phrase that is often used in reference to mental health problems. But mental health is the underrated, lesser-mentioned antithesis of this.

Defining mental health

Defining mental health isn’t easy – it isn’t just the absence of any mental health problems. The dictionary definition of mental health is: ‘The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.’

Sigmund Freud's definition of health is having the capacity to work and to love. This is widely accepted by mental health specialists as a simple and accurate definition. Every other theory around mental health really just broadens and expands on this definition.

Mental health can be interpreted as the capacity to perceive reality objectively, to be open to new situations and challenges, and to possess the ability to empathise with others and have a theory of mind.

Mental health means having the ability to think about ourselves and interpret the world around us in a way that is deemed acceptable and functional by society. It means being able to cope with change and manage a balance between having healthy relationships and independence. Mental health is the ability to be in control of your actions, thoughts and relationships.


Nicky Lidbetter, Anxiety UK’s CEO, tells us; "Mental health is a term used to describe psychological and emotional health or put another way, 'wellbeing'.   Mental health doesn't stay the same; it changes as we experience different issues and are exposed to various circumstances in life.  When a person is enjoying 'good mental health' they will feel able to 'cope', participate fully in life with an ability to reach their full potential." 

Your mental health

Mental health covers an enormous spectrum of emotional and psychological states. Life is tumultuous for the best of us, and this can mean that our mental health, too, is undulating and forever-changing. We can all be affected by life events in different ways – some of us more so than others. Just like our DNA, our mental health is unique. 

Your mental health is personal to you. Only you know your normal mental capacity, ability to cope and how you feel on a day-to-day basis. One classification of mental health is being able to have functioning relationships – but some people find this more difficult than others and this can just a personality trait.

The evolution of mental health

Over the years mental health has dramatically evolved. Between 1-1000 AD mental illness was blamed on demons and between 1300-1600 those with mental health problems were labelled criminals. The treatment towards those with mental health problems has improved significantly over the last century. But over the years, especially with the invention of the internet, there has been an increase in the number of mental disorders. Mental health, therefore, moves with fluidity and in accordance to society. If our interpretation of mental illness can change and evolve, mental health can also change with time.

The ambiguity of mental health

Mental health can be as vague to define as mental health problems. Allen Frances, an editor of the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), said: “These concepts are virtually impossible to define precisely with bright lines at the boundaries.”

Another ambiguity with the term ‘mental health’ involves those with diagnosed mental health problems. For sufferers with long-term problems, can they still enjoy mental health? It's very possible to gain a good understanding of a disorder and possible triggers, receive effective treatment and lead a healthy lifestyle. In these cases, it is surely possible to enjoy waves of mental health, or perhaps, one’s of version of mental health.

Another question raised by the investigation of mental health is: where is the line crossed between mental health and illness? The DSM-5 defines a mental health problem as being characterised by a ‘significant dysfunction in an individual’s cognitions, emotions, or behaviors that reflects a disturbance in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.’ This definition, therefore, defines mental health as being anything other than a ‘significant dysfunction’.

In 1998, the Health Education Authority defined mental health from a resilience point of view. It said that mental health is ‘emotional and spiritual resilience which enables us to enjoy life and to survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a positive sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own and others' dignity and self worth'. This definition, however, doesn’t account for the natural ebbs and flows in daily life and mood. After a bad day, one may feel a little less able to deal with pain or disappointment.

The fragility of mental health

Mental health is fragile. It is never set in stone, but in a constant state of flux. It is also something that many of us neglect to make a conscious decision to nurture. For instance – since the recession, there has been an increase in mental health problems, depression in-particular.

It is the undulating nature of mental health that allows us to have a healthy perspective, resilience and emotional strength. Even when our mental health is at a low, this can allow us to see the world in a better place when we feel back to normal.

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