In recent times, the term mental health has been receiving a lot of attention. There has been a growing emphasis on mental health and mental health care. The world has been changing rapidly. There are concerns related to climate change, there is the unending uncertainty related to the pandemic, and there is the continuous advancement of technology. These are just some of the issues that have led people to have a significant change in their lifestyles. In this regard, it becomes very important that mental health is given that kind of attention.  

Despite the realization of the significance of mental health in day-to-day life, somewhere there has still been a lack of understanding of what really is mental health. This creates a lot of misperceptions about mental health, making it being misconstrued, which leads to spreading a lot of misinformation about it. There is, therefore, a need for the proper understanding of the term mental health.

In general, day-to-day conversations, mental health often has negative connotations. People often talk about mental health in terms of psychological and emotional difficulties or even psychological disorders. This is not exactly what mental health is about. Mental health is about positive capacities – it is ability to grow, to form satisfying relationships, and to be resilient.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sheds greater light on mental health by defining it as a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. This indicates that mental health involves wellbeing, effective functioning of the individual, and effective functioning for the community.

Mental health, according to the WHO, is an absence of mental illness. In everyday life as well as popular culture, when people talk about mental health in terms of psychological problems, psychological and emotional difficulties, or psychological disorders, they inaccurately equate it with mental illness. Mental health, however, is not the same as mental illness. These two are very different concepts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes mental illness as conditions that affect an individual’s thinking, feeling, and behavior, and include psychological disorders ranging from depression, anxiety disorders, and even schizophrenia. This means that mental illness is the presence of psychopathology, which is known to negatively affect an individual’s cognition, emotion, and behavior.

The psychologist Corey Keyes describes mental health in terms of emotional,psychological, and social wellbeing, which helps it to easily distinguish from mental illness. Emotional wellbeing is the emotional quality of life – it is an evaluation of life with respect to happiness and life satisfaction. Psychological wellbeing is the perception of proper psychological functioning, and involves subjective experiences of positive feelings and cognitive appraisals. Social wellbeing is about positive social functioning – it is an evaluation of life with respect to the society, where the individual views himself or herself at the societal level.

Keyes, further, clarifies the difference between mental health and mental illness by distinguishing between flourishing and languishing. Flourishing is a state in which individuals experience high levels of wellbeing and optimal levels of psycho-social functioning. This is the state of mental health. On the other hand, languishing is a state in which individuals experience low levels of wellbeing and low psycho-social functioning. Languishing involves a sense of emptiness and a lack of vitality. This is the state of mental illness.

The distinction between flourishing and languishing led Keyes to suggest what he called the Two Continua Model of Mental Health or the Mental Health Continuum. In this model, Keyes suggests that mental health and mental illness are two completely distinct dimensions – one aspect (mental health) is the absence of mental illness, and the other aspect (mental illness) is the absence of mental health.

However, it may not be as simple as it may seem to be. Even though they are separate dimensions, they are related to each other. Mental illness causes an obstacle to experience mental health, and mental health enables to not experience mental illness.

Further, the two categories are not completely homogenous. The state that is between the two categories (mental health and mental illness) is said to be of moderate mental health. This means moderate mental health is less flourishing than mental health and less languishing than mental illness.

The heterogeneity in both the categories creates complications. Research shows that people who are not completely flourishing may not necessarily have a mental illness, and people are in the state of languishing may be experiencing some degree of mental health. This means that a mentally healthy individual may not always be flourishing and an individual with mental illness may also experience a slightly lesser degree of flourishing.

This, further, indicates that it is not the end of the road if a person is experiencing mental illness. In the same manner, psychological treatment is not always meant for only mental illness. People who may not be having any mental illness, but are not completely flourishing can also require psychological help. This helps to clear many of the misconceptions associated with both psychological treatment as well as mental illness. It also helps to dissociate the stigma associated with both mental illness as well as getting psychological treatment.

In times when it is easy to believe misinformation, there is a need to have a proper understanding of mental health. Mental health is something that is highly significant, and very relevant in the current scenario. Therefore, it is very pertinent to have the realization of what really is mental health. 

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Brian Arbenz said...

Thank you for a clear and readable overview on the differences between illnesses, disorders, and just poor functioning. I appreciate your including the takes of various professionals; doing so makes it clear there is no absolute empirical definition of mental illness, but many valuable analyses. There is some very helpful info in this piece to make sense of the supermarket of theories out there. Many people use the words "mentally ill" as a criticism of someone's beliefs they find wrong or outlandish. But mental illness is not a pejorative term. It is a situation in which a sufferer needs help.

Saif Farooqi said...

Thank you for the appreciation. And yes, mental illness is surely not a pejorative term.