What is mental health?

Mental health is a key aspect of physical health, though not usually treated as such. The stigma surrounding mental health can make even discussing it seem like something that should be done in whispers. The unfortunate outcomes of this censure are a less healthy society and less healthy people, often afraid to seek help when they need it. How is this problem solved? It helps to understand what mental health is and what it isn’t.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

This definition is one of many that seeks to explain that mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. The description also provides insight into what mental health isn’t — mental illness. Improving our health literacy and understanding the difference between these two terms will help eliminate the surrounding stigma and clear an easier path for people to seek help when they need it. Diving into this topic will also encourage people to proactively manage their mental health before it becomes an issue.

It’s essential to understand that mental health does not mean the absence of mental illness. Mentally healthy people may have diagnosed mental conditions that are being managed effectively. And people who are not mentally ill may still have poor mental health.

Defining mental health

Remembering that mental health means emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, here’s a further breakdown.

  • Our psychological wellbeing determines how we think. We use our cognitive skills to manage the responsibilities of daily life. These skills include the ability to pay attention, remember and organize information, solve problems, and make decisions. Our cognitive skills also help us recognize emotions in ourselves and others.
  • Our emotional wellbeing determines how we feel. Once we recognize emotions in ourselves and others, we learn to express them, regulate them in ourselves, and empathize with others. Empathy means being able to put yourself in another’s shoes and understanding what they feel and why they make the decisions they do. (It’s been noted that an absence of empathy is a risk factor for mental illness and violence.)
  • Our social wellbeing determines how we act. Healthy relationships support good mental health and being socially isolated can negatively impact your mental health.

What affects our mental health?

Good mental health is often thought of as simply being happy, but it’s much more than that.  Emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and disappointment are normal and appropriate, especially in response to life events. Everyone encounters milestones or events in their life that cause stress.

Stress is defined as any change that we have to adapt to. Changes can be positive or negative. Positive changes like the birth of a new child, a new job, or a vacation still require adjustment from a previous state of being. Negative changes like illnesses, job loss, and death require resilience. People with good mental health can cope and bounce back from adverse life events and move on more quickly.

Being mentally healthy is influenced by our experiences, relationships, and physical health, including what we put into our bodies. The food we consume, medications we take, and alcohol or other recreational drug use alter our brain chemistry in positive and negative ways.

Biology and our environment play a part, too. Those with a family history of mental health issues or mental illness may have a genetic predisposition for similar problems. People with a history of living in traumatic and abusive homes are at greater risk for mental health issues. Once the forces we come up against are greater than our coping skills, our mental health suffers.

Signs of poor or deteriorating mental health

Poor mental health increases the risk of many physical health problems like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Knowing the warning signs can help with early intervention. They include:

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Inability to perform daily tasks like getting out of bed or getting dressed
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Social isolation
  • Feeling low energy, hopeless, like nothing matters, or numb
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Feeling on edge, irritable, forgetful, or worried
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause relationship problems
  • Having repetitive or persistent thoughts
  • Hearing voices or thinking of harming yourself or others

How to improve mental health

We can improve our mental health in many of the same ways we improve our physical health. Doing so has many benefits. Being mentally healthy brings us confidence, helps us set and achieve goals, improves our ability to cope, and gives us a sense of purpose. Being mentally healthy also positively impacts some physical ailments, like heart disease.

So how do we do it? Here are some strategies.

  1. Exercise. Not only does exercise improve heart health by getting the blood pumping, but it improves mental health by getting endorphins jumping. Endorphins are chemicals released in the brain that produce feelings of euphoria and help fight depression and relieve pain.

Exercise is often “prescribed” in addition to medications for patients with depression and anxiety, and appears to be just as effective as therapy for treating mild and moderate depression.

  1. Diet. What we eat determines how we feel. That’s because our foods supply essential vitamins and minerals necessary for the brain to function correctly. Consequently, our choices of what to consume can positively affect our mental health, with good dietary choices, or negatively, with nutrient-deficient foods and alcohol overuse.
  2. Relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises and meditation help instantly relieve stress in the moment and long-term if practiced daily.
  3. Selfcare. Taking time for yourself with hobbies, connecting with friends, or massages and other services are great ways to manage stress.
  4. Mindfulness. Relaxation techniques can also help bring your thoughts to the present moment. Use this time to observe rather than feel thoughts to understand where your stress originates (your triggers). Knowing your triggers helps you plan an appropriate course of action for when they arise.
  5. Practice gratitude. Psychologists have found that people who practice gratitude by being thankful for the good things in their life are happier. Happy thoughts create happy feelings.
  6. Cognitive defusion. When negative thoughts arise, choose not to engage with them. Making a conscious decision to detach yourself from repetitive and unwanted thoughts can help you continue forward motion and focus on more positive things.

How mental illness is different from mental health

Mental illness refers to a wide range of disorders that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. They are diagnosed using widely accepted standards of assessments and practices. These conditions range from moderate to severe and include depression and anxiety, mood and personality disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors, and trauma disorders.

Mental illness is not uncommon. According to the CDC:

  • More than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, with 1 in 5 experiencing a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children have had or have a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans live with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Mental health care and treatment

The stigma of poor mental health and mental illness also has held back society’s approach to treatment. When mental illness is considered reflective of individual weakness or poor life choices, rather than as the health issue it is, people have even greater difficulty getting help.

We see this when emergency departments and police departments aren’t prepared to help people in the middle of mental health crises. We also see this in the lack of insurance coverage for mental health and addiction treatment.

However, people can both improve their mental health and recover from mental illnesses with the right treatment. Medications, therapies, and programs are available for those struggling with these issues. If you think you have a mental health issue, let your primary physician know. They may be able to refer you to professionals who specialize in mental health treatment.