What is mental health and wellbeing?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) “Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Mental wellbeing in this context refers to our psychological states, (the invisible connection between the faculties of the brain, our mind, and behaviour), and our emotional states (basically our moods and feelings). These states influence our thoughts, experiences and our behaviours. Furthermore, as social beings, mental well-being is influenced by the quality of our social interactions and the wider context we find ourselves in, such as environmental and political climates. This is what we might call social-wellbeing, which is sometimes annexed onto the concept of mental health. You may have come across terms such as ‘psychosocial’ or even ‘biopsychosocial’ to denote the intertwined nature of the physical, psychological and social worlds we find ourselves in.

When people talk about mental health, I think it’s to differentiate from physical health. So mental health is talking about aspects relating to human experiences that originate from and can be explained by our mind, whereas physical health is sort of everything else related to our physical body. This is somewhat confusing, as our mind is embedded in a physical body, essentially our brain and nervous system, and both mind and body influence each other. For example, you might have hurt your knee, and your sleep gets interrupted from the pain. This is a physical ‘issue’, a hurt knee with pain. Your lack of sleep is likely to influence your mood, say you become more grumpy than usual, this would be considered a mental or psychological ‘issue’. Your physical state has now influenced your psychological state. Incidentally how you experience the pain can be explained by your mind, your psychology and be moderated by your mental state. These experiences affect your mental health. So when we are talking about mental health, we are actually thinking about how each person experiences their life, not only within themselves, but also within the context of their life.

Note however, that the WHO offer the definition that mental health is a state of mental well-being. In effect they are suggesting that there is such a thing as mental ill-health. Just as someone who has physical ailments are likely to be impeded in some aspects of life, the same is said for mental health. That if our mental health is suffering, our lives are likely to be impeded also. This might take form in addictions, self-harm, reduced social interactions, or reduced ability to work, and at it’s worst leads to homocides and suicides. An important point here to note is that, being free of mental ill-health, does not automatically lead to mental ‘well’-health. My knee might no longer hurt, but that doesn’t mean I am a physically healthy person. So mental health refers to what we might call the positive aspects of our mind-body experience, in other words, our mental-wellbeing. This include experiences such as hope, gratitude, awe and sense of purpose, agency and belonging. At what point a person reaches mental wellbeing is subjective, but we can say overall things about what contributes to better mental wellbeing.

Mental wellbeing is often measured as satisfaction. Research suggests that people who report higher levels of life satisfaction for example, are more physically healthy, cope with stresses of life better and live longer. Good reasons for looking after our mental health.  (Check out this website if you want to try a test in mental well-being). The positive psychology movement is dedicated to understanding how we might increase our mental health (and wellbeing), considering how we might flourish.

In order to achieve (good) mental health, we need to work in two ways; reduce mental ill-health, as well as increase mental wellbeing. The first is done through societal policies that reduce life stressors (for example provision of decent housing, reducing criminality and corruption) and also by providing psychological services such as the NHS in the UK to support people through difficult life events and support reparation of psychological damages people have endured. The second aspect, mental wellbeing, is addressed also by policies (for example provision of decent paid leave, allowances for recreational time and services), as well as provision of mental health practitioners, life coaches and others that help ‘enhance’ one's life experience. Note mental wellbeing is not about achieving eternal happiness, it’s more about experiencing an overall contentment and satisfaction in life, aiming for a sense of flourishing rather than survival or just getting by. It’s a tall order for mankind to get there, but it’s an essential endeavour. #happyworldmentalhealthday