what is mental health?
While there is no official definition of mental or emotional health, these terms generally refer to our thoughts, feelings and actions, particularly when faced with life's challenges and stressors. Throughout our lives, mental health is the foundation of our thinking and communication skills, learning, emotional growth, resilience and self-esteem.
The Mental Health Continuum
Depending on the circumstances in your life at any given time, your state of mental health may be located at any point along the continuum below. On the continuum, states of mental health are differentiated by the amount of stress/distress and impairment involved. The lines differentiating states of mental health are not precise because it is not clear at which exact point a concern becomes a problem, or a problem becomes an illness.
Most of us, most of the time, will be somewhere on the left half of the continuum – experiencing reasonably good emotional health and negotiating life events that, while stressful, do not feel unmanageable. In this state of well-being, the stress and discomfort caused by the everyday ups and downs of life do not impair daily functions such as eating, sleeping, or problem-solving. Generally we resolve these stresses ourselves, without seeking professional help.
But when major negative life events occur, or more serious or prolonged problems arise, coping becomes progressively more difficult. During these times you may experience what are identified on the right side of the continuum as “mental health problems.” Within the category identified as “mental health problems,” there are two major mental health states: emotional problems and mental illness.
Emotional problems or concerns: When emotional discomfort or distress begins to noticeably impair your daily functioning (e.g., changes in appetite or sleeping habits, lack of concentration), you are experiencing emotional problems. This experience may be commonly referred to as a “rough patch”, a “low point”, or “the blues.” Some people in this area of the continuum may be diagnosed with mild or temporary medical disorders such as “situational depression” or “general anxiety.” Self-care strategies and the support of friends and loved ones can be especially helpful during these times. In addition, many people experiencing this level of distress and impairment seek professional counseling to help them return to a state of emotional well-being.
Mental illness: The most serious type of mental health problem, located at the right end of the continuum, is a diagnosable “mental illness.” Mental illness is characterized by pronounced or prolonged alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior. Though they don’t take up a large amount of space on the continuum, mental illnesses are common: it is estimated that one in five Americans will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illnesses include relatively common disorders such as depression and anxiety as well as major disorders such as schizophrenia. Individuals with mental illness typically experience chronic or long-term impairments that range from moderate to disabling in nature. Like physical illnesses, mental illnesses are treatable. Professional help in the form of counseling and/or medication can lead to recovery or successful ongoing management of the condition.
Causes of Mental Health Problems
Mental health researchers and professionals have developed several theories to explain the causes of mental health problems (including addiction), but they have reached no consensus. One factor on which they agree is that the individual sufferer is not responsible for the condition, and cannot simply turn it on or off at will. Most likely several factors combine to trigger a condition.
Environmental Factors: People are affected by broad social and cultural factors as well as by unique factors in their personal environments. Early experiences, unique to individuals, such as a lack of loving parents, violent or traumatic events, or rejection by childhood peers can negatively impact mental health. Current stressors such as relationship difficulties, the loss of a job, the birth of a child, a move, or prolonged problems at work can also be important environmental factors.
Cultural factors such as racism, discrimination, poverty and violence also may contribute to the causes of mental illness. Poverty is especially significant: according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people in the lowest socio-economic status are two to three times more likely than those in the highest strata to have a mental illness.
Biological Factors: Scientists believe that the brain can produce too many or too few of certain chemicals, resulting in changes in how we perceive and experience things around us, as well as changes in behavior, mood and thought. While causes of fluctuations in brain chemicals aren’t fully understood, physical illness, hormonal change, reaction to medication, substance abuse, diet and stress have been identified as contributing factors.
Genetics: Researchers have found that there appears to be a hereditary pattern to illnesses: individuals with particular disorders tend to have had parents or other close relatives with the same illnesses. Research has shown that the likelihood of inheriting disorders varies, but scientists aren’t clear which genes are involved.
Frequently Asked Questions about Mental Health
Question: Is mental illness really an illness?
Answer: Yes. The brain is an organ that is susceptible to illness. Chemicals in the brain regulate how people think, feel and act. Brain function can become affected if these chemicals are out of balance or disrupted, contributing to mental illness. Thus, mental illness is a real bodily illness, not just something “in your head.”
Question: Does the prevalence of mental health problems differ among different racial or ethnic groups?
Answer: No. The prevalence of mental health problems is similar for all racial and ethnic groups. However, members of racial or ethnic minority groups may experience greater disability from mental health problems because of difficulties in accessing culturally sensitive, good quality care.
Question: Is it true that mental illness can’t be cured?
Answer: This is a complex question. In many cases, mental illness cannot be “cured” in the sense that it will go away and never return. Most often, the symptoms of mental illness can be eliminated or reduced and managed through treatment with medication, therapy or a combination of both. For example, 80 to 90% of people with depression or anxiety can be helped when properly assessed and treated, though it is still possible that the illness will return at a future time.
Question: Are people with mental health problems likely to be dangerous?
Answer: No. Research shows that people with mental health problems do not commit significantly more violent acts than do people in the general population. Research does indicate, however, that substance abuse isfrequently involved in violent acts committed by individuals with or without other mental health problems.
Question: If someone has a mental health problem, should they abandon their hopes for a fulfilling career?
Answer: No. Although mental health problems can negatively affect individuals in a significant manner, with treatment and appropriate work accommodations, even people diagnosed with a serious mental illness have succeeded famously.
What is Mental Illness?
A fact sheet from the American Psychiatric Association.