Defining Mental Health

In comparison to mental illness, the concept of mental health is difficult to define. A layman’s understanding, or definition of health will be dependant on their perspective, which in turn is influenced by their individual life circumstances, experiences and culture. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. (World Health Organisation, 1948)

WHO’s definition of health stresses that there is a positive dimension of mental health, it is not just the absence of a recognised or diagnosable mental disorder or illness.  Therefore a person’s mental state may have a range or succession of possible values, and can be described as a continuum.  (Mental health foundation 2003)

Mental health is much harder to assess than physical health, which can be measured. For example blood pressure, temperature, weight, and cholesterol levels are all objective and can all be precisely measured, identifying if the physical components of the body are healthy. In comparison people’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions are all subjective and so therefore difficult to calculate and quantify.

As the aspects of mental health are subjective and dependant on the individual, there are no formulae or flow charts to follow to achieve a state of mental health or wellbeing. One of the main characteristics of mental health is the ability to enjoy life. Other positive dimensions of mental health have been identified as the ability for the person to develop in an emotional, creative, intellectual and spiritual way. By doing so a person will feel as if they are developing or moving forward rather than stagnating. It is also important to be able to interact with other people, to be aware of them, show empathy and to initiate and develop relationships with others. To achieve good mental health most people need balance in their life, for example balance between work and leisure time, balance between time spent alone and time in company, the balance between rest and exercise. A lack of this balance is a possible cause of stress.

Mental illness refers collectively to mental health disorders that are diagnosable, on average one in four people will suffer from a mental health problem in the course of a year, some of the more common complaints are depression and generalised anxiety disorder. (Mental health foundation 2003) The majority of mental health problems found in primary care, although distressing to the sufferer, are relatively mild. If they are recognised it is possible to overcome them with support or professional help.

Mental health disorders can be caused by organic factors, i.e. identifiable cerebral dysfunction, by psychoactive substance use or by outside stressors. The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) classifies mental and behavioural disorders into 11 categories, starting from organic disorders, such as dementia and moves through stress, mood and behavioural disorders. (World Health Organisation, 2003)

In order for Health Professionals to enable people to achieve an overall better health, a holistic view must be taken, and all of the dimensions of health should be considered. It is also important that the broader issues affecting the mental health of society be considered, rather than concentrating on mental illness, in an effort to prevent mental illness instead of curing it.

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