Mental Health: A Guide to Understanding What It Is and What It Looks Like

Mental Health: A Guide to Understanding What It Is & What It Looks Like

What is Mental Health?

Let’s talk about mental health, baby! For starters, mental health (think, positive mental health) is a continuum, meaning that we all experience mental health or lack thereof, and it can evolve throughout our lives! The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes [their] abilities, can cope with the normal stresses in life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to [their] community.”

Think of mental health as having 3 dimensions of being: 1) emotional well-being, 2) psychological well-being, and 3) social/community well-being.

People who are mentally healthy tend to have:

  • A sense of contentment
  • A zest for living and the ability to laugh and have fun
  • The ability to deal with stress and bounce back from adversity
  • A sense of meaning and purpose in both their activities and relationships
  • The ability to build and maintain fulfilling relationships
  • The flexibility to learn new skills and adapt to change
  • A balance between work and play, rest, and activity
  • Self-confidence and high self-esteem

Sounds pretty great, right?! However, having good mental health doesn’t mean that you won’t ever experience emotional challenges! We all go through disappointments, loss, and change; these normal parts of life still cause sadness, anxiety, and stress. Feeling the full spectrum of emotions and moods reflects a full life! But just as physically healthy people are better able to bounce back from illness or injury, people with strong mental health are better able to bounce back from adversity, trauma, and stress.

Mental Health vs Mental Illness: Is it Always One or the Other?

Turns out, positive mental health isn’t just the absence of mental health problems! Being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than being free of symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders. Rather than the absence of mental illness, mental health actually refers to the presence of positive characteristics.

Research has shown that mental health and mental illness can coincide. Sounds strange, right? But, it is possible to have flourishing mental health while also having a mental illness, and likewise, it is possible to have languishing mental health without having a mental illness. This dual-continual model, developed by Corey Keyes, is based on the idea that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness, and they are related but distinct dimensions. 

This means that people struggling with mental ill-health can still benefit from positive mental health promotion in addition to alleviating distress/focusing on symptoms. Know that whatever you are experiencing, you are not alone, and that your mental health is just as important, (if not more so!) than your physical health.

Major Takeaways: 

  1. Mental health can evolve, and encompasses emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social/community well-being.
  2. Mental health and mental illness can coincide! It is possible to actually experience one with the other.
  3. Everyone can benefit from positive mental health promotion, even those currently experiencing mental illness.

“There is no health without mental health.”

World Health Organization

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