What is mental health? Definition and examples

Mental health refers to our level of emotional, psychological, and social well-being. If you enjoy good mental health, you do not suffer from a mental illness. Therefore, mental health is also an absence of mental illness. It affects how we feel, think, and what we do.

How people deal with stress, make choices, and relate to other individuals is in large part determined by their mental health.

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no health without mental health.

WHO states:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. An important implication of this definition is that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.”

“Mental health is a state of well-being 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.”

Mental illness and poor mental health

Although we commonly use the terms mental illness and poor mental health interchangeably, their meanings are not identical. It is possible for a health care professional to diagnose a patient with poor mental health but not with a mental illness. Somebody living with a mental illness can also go through periods of mental, social, and physical well-being.

How vital is mental health for our overall health?

Both mental and physical health are vital components of overall health. Depression and some other mental illnesses increase the risk of developing chronic physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. If a disease is chronic it is constantly recurring or persists for a long time, – sometimes for the rest of a person’s life.

The same may happen the other way round, i.e., somebody with a chronic physical illness is more likely to develop a mental illness.

The state of your psychological, emotional, and social well-being can also change over time. When demands that are placed on you exceed your coping abilities and resources, your mental health can be negatively affected. If, for example, you have to work two jobs, care for a sick relative, and cannot make ends meet, your mental health will suffer.

Mental illness is more common than most people realize

United States

In the United States, which is not that different from other nations, mental illnesses are relatively common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • At some time in their lives, more than half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder or illness.
  • In any given year, twenty percent of Americans experience a mental illness.
  • One in five US children have had a seriously debilitating mental illnesses at some point during their life.
  • Four percent of people in the US live with a serious mental illness. Examples include major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
United Kingdom

According to Mind, a British charity, twenty-five percent of Britons experience a mental health problem each year. Depression, anxiety, and other common mental health problems are experienced by one sixth of England’s population in any given week.

In the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, other advanced economies, and many other parts of the world, the overall number of people suffering from mental health problems is rising.

Social isolation and mental health problems

Mental health during COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns
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During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, millions of people across the world experienced mental health problems, especially during lockdowns. A higher number of individuals also reported having vivid dreams and nightmares during the pandemic.

We are inherently social. We are psychologically, genetically, and biologically designed to survive in interactive and social settings. When governments imposed lockdowns and curfews, people experienced new and sometimes extreme levels of isolation.

In one of our previous articles, Veronica Cruz wrote:

“Social isolation is perceived differently by people. A teenager having to isolate with her family without seeing friends could be lonely. But an elderly person who lives alone has no interaction with anyone for weeks or months. Either way, social isolation has negative effects mentally and physically.”

“Loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression, which in turn can lead to cognitive decline and a weakened immune system. Unhealthy lifestyle habits also form because there is less social interaction and accountability. The longer you have to isolate, the higher the risk of mental afflictions and physical disorders.”