1.3.1 - What is Mental Health – part one

MindMatters in Minutes. What is Mental Health? Part one! A definition!

If a student came up to you and said what is mental health, how would you answer them?  Maybe you’d say, er… it’s obviously being mentally healthy isn’t it?

To which your student replies, that’s a tautology it doesn’t mean anything, and they’d be right. So maybe you say mental health is to do with things like schizophrenia, depression, anxiety… But that is a list of disorders. It’s not mental health.

Maybe you say mental health is being happy— but then happiness is just a mood. Our lives are full of positive experiences that have nothing to do with happiness at all.

So what is mental health?

Here’s one definition, from the World Health Organisation: “Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises 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.” That’s good, but it’s long. We could boil it down to this: Mental health is our ability to respond to challenges.

What kind of challenges? It could be anything: from a sudden encounter with a tiger, to anticipating an exam. It could be something physical like an illness, something social like bullying or being left out. It could be an all-consuming crush on someone, or a to-do list the size of a shark, it could be arguments with your family or a difficult essay, or the death of a parent, or a long-distance move. The fact is that life rarely goes according to plan, and whenever we are beset by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, mental health is our ability to bounce back and stay on course. Now how do you get this ability? Are you born with it? No. Mental health can change, and the things that tend to shape it are called risk factors and protective factors.

Protective factors such as a sense of self-efficacy, a supportive family or strong friendships tend to cushion and support you, making it more likely that you will maintain a state of positive mental health and stay on track.

On the other hand, risk factors such as chronic illness or low socioeconomic status can have the opposite effect, exacerbating the impact of disruptions in your life and making it more likely you will experience a decline in mental health.

The good news is that protective factors can offset risk factors.

And even better news is that protective factors introduced in early years can help shape positive mental health across a person’s lifespan.

So if a student asks you, What is mental health? You can say mental health is a state of mind that allows you to cope with the endlessly inventive challenges life throws at you, and that state of mind can be at any time eroded by risk factors or supported by protective factors.

That’s a great explanation and your student will love and respect you for it, but it does raise another important question.

If you wanted to improve the mental health of as many people as you possibly could, what do you think would be the best time and place to do that?