Mental health is a level of psychological well-being, or an absence of mental illness. It is the “psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment”. From the perspective of positive psychology or holism, mental health may include an individual’s ability to enjoy life, and create a balance between life activities and efforts to achieve psychological resilience.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health includes “subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, inter-generational dependence, and self-actualization of one’s intellectual and emotional potential, among others.” The WHO further states that the well-being of an individual is encompassed in the realization of their abilities, coping with normal stresses of life, productive work and contribution to their community. Cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing professional theories all affect how “mental health” is defined. A widely accepted definition of health by mental health specialists is psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s definition: the capacity “to work and to love”.
Mental health and mental illness
According to the U.S. surgeon general (1999), mental health is the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and providing the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity. The term mental illness refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders—health conditions characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior associated with distress or impaired functioning.
A person struggling with their mental health may experience this because of stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, death of a loved one, suicidal thoughts, grief, addiction, ADHD, various mood disorders, or other mental illnesses of varying degrees, as well as learning disabilities. Therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurse practitioners or physicians can help manage mental illness with treatments such as therapy, counseling, or medication.
In the mid-19th century, William Sweetser was the first to coin the term “mental hygiene”, which can be seen as the precursor to contemporary approaches to work on promoting positive mental health. Isaac Ray, one of the thirteen founders of the American Psychiatric Association, further defined mental hygiene as “the art of preserving the mind against all incidents and influences calculated to deteriorate its qualities, impair its energies, or derange its movements.”
Dorothea Dix (1802–1887) was an important figure in the development of “mental hygiene” movement. Dix was a school teacher who endeavored throughout her life to help people with mental disorders, and to bring to light the deplorable conditions into which they were put. This was known as the “mental hygiene movement”. Before this movement, it was not uncommon that people affected by mental illness in the 19th century would be considerably neglected, often left alone in deplorable conditions, barely even having sufficient clothing. Dix’s efforts were so great that there was a rise in the number of patients in mental health facilities, which sadly resulted in these patients receiving less attention and care, as these institutions were largely understaffed.
Emil Kraepelin in 1896 developed the taxonomy mental disorders which has dominated the field for nearly 80 years. Later the proposed disease model of abnormality was subjected to analysis and considered normality to be relative to the physical, geographical and cultural aspects of the defining group.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Clifford Beers founded the Mental Health America – National Committee for Mental Hygiene after publication of his accounts from lived experience in lunatic asylums “A mind that found itself” in 1908and opened the first outpatient mental health clinic in the United States.
The mental hygiene movement, related to the social hygiene movement, had at times been associated with advocating eugenics and sterilisation of those considered too mentally deficient to be assisted into productive work and contented family life. In the post-WWII years, references to mental hygiene were gradually replaced by the term ‘mental health’ due to its positive aspect that evolves from the treatment of illness to preventive and promotive areas of healthcare.
Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Over 26 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 meet the criteria for having a mental illness. Serious mental disorders affect an estimated 6 percent of the adult population, or approximately 1 in 17 people. A little more than half receive treatment. A WHO report estimates the global cost of mental illness at nearly $2.5 trillion (two-thirds in indirect costs) in 2010, with a projected increase to over $6 trillion by 2030.
Evidence from the World Health Organization suggests that nearly half of the world’s population are affected by mental illness with an impact on their self-esteem, relationships and ability to function in everyday life. An individual’s emotional health can also impact physical health and poor mental health can lead to problems such as substance abuse.
Maintaining good mental health is crucial to living a long and healthy life. Good mental health can enhance one’s life, while poor mental health can prevent someone from living an enriching life. According to Richards, Campania, & Muse-Burke, “There is growing evidence that is showing emotional abilities are associated with prosocial behaviors such as stress management and physical health.” Their research also concluded that people who lack emotional expression are inclined to anti-social behaviors (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, physical fights, vandalism), which are a direct reflection of their mental health and suppress emotions.