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What does 'Mental Health' mean?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

‘Mental Health’ is one of those phrases that has become common place and thankfully is something that society in general is now more accepting of - but what does it actually mean?

To some, the phrase ‘mental health’ is associated with the presence of an illness or a formal diagnosis, whilst to others it represents the absence of illness and yet to others it encompasses even more.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that mental health is a key component of health. The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This implies, therefore, that mental health is more than just an absence of illness.

WHO go onto define it as “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises 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 health, therefore, encompasses our psychological, social and emotional well-being. It will affect how we think, feel, and act. It affects how we handle stress, make decisions as well as how we relate to others. There is not a single stage in life, from childhood and adolescence through to adulthood where mental health is not important.

Whilst mental health can affect daily living, relationships, and physical health, this link also works in reverse. Factors occurring in our lives such as interpersonal connections, and physical factors can all impact on our mental health. Research shows that looking after our mental health can preserve our ability to enjoy life. In order to do this, we need to find a balance between life activities, responsibilities, and psychological resilience – and that balance will be different for every one.

What does ‘good’ mental health look like?

Many people find it much easier to describe ‘poor’ mental health than they do ‘good’ mental health. Perhaps this is a product of decades of it not being talked about and it being demonised. Today, most people associate ‘poor’ mental health with things such as stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, physical ill-health and human rights violations. The reality is that multiple social, psychological, and biological factors determine the level of mental health of a person at any point of time.

But how do we know if we have ‘good’ mental health? According to the Mental Health Foundation, “Good mental health is characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil a number of key functions and activities, including:

  • The ability to learn

  • The ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions

  • The ability to form and maintain good relationships with others

  • The ability to cope with and manage change and uncertainty’

Positive mental health, therefore, allows us to realise our full potential, to cope with the stresses of life, to feel and to be productive in our day-to-day dealings and to make positive contributions to society and those around us.

Fortunately, many of us – in fact, the majority of us – experience good mental health for most of the time. However, no-one is immune to a deterioration in their mental health and it is important that we understand some of the signs that indicate our mental health is not as healthy as we would perhaps like it to be.

The warning signs

Whilst everyone’s mental health is affected by a different combination of social and financial circumstances, biological factors, and lifestyle choices, there are some common indicators that we need to be on the lookout for;

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little

  • Social withdrawal

  • Struggling to do your normal daily tasks

  • Ruminating on negative thoughts or memories

  • Having low or no energy

  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared

  • Feeling ‘numb’

  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships

  • Feeling helpless or like everything is out of control

  • Drinking, smoking or using drugs or medication more than usual

  • Hearing voices or seeing things that others don’t

  • Thoughts of self-harm or harm to others

If you find yourself experiencing any of the above symptoms, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Sometimes just confiding in a friend can be enough, other times you may need to speak to your GP to get additional help and support.

The important thing is to recognise when your mental health is suffering and to reach out to someone for help.

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