What Is Mental Health?

(Last Updated On: March 12, 2020)

Just as physical health is about more than being free of illness, mental health is about much more than the absence of mental disorders. Mental health includes psychological, social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors. It involves your ability to manage stress, make decisions, get along with others, and enjoy your life.

Mental health can have an impact on many aspects of an individual’s life including work, relationships, and even physical health. Having good mental health allows people to feel good about their life, relationships, work, and future. 

What Is Mental Health?

The World Health Organization defines mental health as:

“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

While some definitions of mental health suggest that it means being free of mental illness, health is about much more than simply not being unwell. 

Signs and Symptoms

Positive mental health is about more than simply not having the symptoms of mental illness. Some of the signs of mental health include: 

  • The ability to form and maintain good relationships with others 
  • Being able to cope with stressful events 
  • The ability to understand, express, and manage emotions, including positive and negative ones 
  • Feeling satisfied with life and hopeful for the future

Some signs that some might be struggling with a mental health concern include:  

  • Lack of energy 
  • Feeling like nothing matters 
  • Sleeping too little or too much 
  • Feeling hopeless 
  • Engaging in risky behaviors 
  • Substance or alcohol misuse 
  • Irritability or anger 
  • Changes in mood or sudden mood swings 
  • Difficulty with daily life tasks 
  • Persistent and intrusive thoughts 
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Problems With Defining Mental Health

While mental health is often defined in similar ways, researchers have also pointed out that these conceptualizations can sometimes be problematic.

Definitions of mental health often neglect the fact that mental health doesn’t mean a complete absence of negativity, that some people lack the resources and opportunities as others, and that productivity is not an accurate measure of a person’s health or happiness.

First, positive feelings and positive functioning are not always key indicators of mental health. For example, people can experience positive emotions while engaging in destructive or unhealthy behaviors as well. And people who are in good mental health can still be sad, angry, or unhappy. 

Definitions of mental health also often stress actively making contributions to one’s community or society, which can exclude people who are shy, who do not have the opportunity to be active, or who have experienced rejection by others in their communities. This does not necessarily mean that these individuals lack good mental health, however.

Work productivity is also often used as a marker of mental health, but such definitions neglect individuals who are not able to work due to age, physical condition, or disability. 

To address these concerns, a group of European psychiatrists proposed a different definition of mental health, which states:

“Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium.”

Key Components of Mental Health

Regardless of how mental health is defined, there are a few key components which include emotional, social, and psychological well-being:

Emotional Well-Being

  • Interest in life  
  • Happiness 
  • Life satisfaction

Social Well-Being

  • Contributing to society 
  • A sense of belonging 
  • A feeling that the social world makes sense 
  • The belief that society is improving and can be improved

Psychological Well-Being

  • Effectively managing life responsibilities 
  • Liking yourself and your personality 
  • Having good relationships with others 
  • Being happy with your own life

Risk Factors

Mental health influences everyone from all walks of life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental and behavioral disorders are one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S. 

There are certain risk factors that may increase the risk of developing mental health problems. These include:

  • Stress 
  • Trauma 
  • Chronic medical conditions 
  • A history of mental illness 
  • A family history of mental illness 
  • Alcohol and substance use 
  • Lack of social support

Approximately 1 in 5 (46.6 million) adults in the United States have a mental illness.

What You Can Do

There are things that you can do that are known to support positive mental health. These include:

  • Connecting with other people
  • Asking for help when you need it
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Managing your stress
  • Developing good coping skills
  • Staying physically active

Most importantly, you should seek professional help if you think that you need it. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about what you are experiencing. Your doctor or therapist can offer advice, support, and resources that can help.

Sources:

World Health Organization. Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice (Summary Report) Geneva: World Health Organization; 2004.

Keyes CLM. Mental health as a complete state: how the salutogenic perspective completes the picture. In: Bauer GF, Hämmig O, editors. Bridging occupational, organizational and public health. Dordrecht: Springer; 2014. pp. 179–92.

Mayo Clinic. Mental illness. Updated June 8, 2019.

National Institute of Mental Health. Mental illness. Updated February 2019.