But what exactly do the terms mental health, wellness and wholeness mean? When you think about it, it’s hard to pin down exact definitions for them.
And the definitions are continually changing for every individual, because mental health, mental wellness, and mental wholeness are processes, in movement, and not static. In a way, we make our own definitions of what they mean for each of us.
To me, these are more than interesting terms or concepts. They are the very underpinnings of this blog, the ultimate goal for every post written.
This is the first of a three-part series presenting the widely-recognized definitions of the terms mental health, mental wellness, and mental wholeness, along with my own definitions and how I use the terms in this blog. Today’s post, on mental health, will be followed by post on mental wellness and mental wholeness in the days to come.
There are many definitions of mental health, but few agreements
It is easier to define mental illness than mental health
It is always easier to define mental illness than mental health. There are whole libraries filled with books about mental illnesses, but hardly any books on what being mentally healthy really means.
And among the writers on mental health, there is no general agreement as to what exactly what it is. Each writer seems to offer a competing theory of mental health, with its own requirements and emphases. Add in cultural differences, subjective assessments and value judgments and things get really confusing.
But one agreement among the professionals is that mental health is not the simple absence of mental illness, and that mental illness is not the simple absence of mental health.
In 1999 Surgeon General David Satcher, in his report on Mental Health, defined it as,
The successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity.
Mental health and mental illness are not polar opposites, according to the Surgeon General’s report, but points on a continuum, where an individual’s mental health may have many different possible values. At one end of the continuum is mental health as “successful mental functioning. ” In the middle are “mental health problems,” and at the other end is mental illness, with “impaired functioning.”
Mental health can be considered to be attitudes and thoughts that lead to actions
Can there be a single definition of mental health?
Perhaps there can be no single definition of mental health due to the many differences between people. But there are signs that one is mentally healthy. Mental health, much more than physical health, can be defined by your attitudes and the thoughts that lead to actions. It’s as much what you do as what you think.
Despite the many competing theories of mental health, there are a few generally agreed-upon signs that a person is mentally healthy. Briefly, the mentally healthy person:
- Is able to use their cognitive and emotional capabilities
- Has a feeling of being capable and competent
- Is able to work productively
- Is able to handle normal levels of stress
- Has the resilience and flexibility to recover, or “bounce back,” from difficult situations
- Is able to function in society
- Is able to contribute to community life
- Is able to maintain satisfying relations
- Is able to lead an independent life
- Meets the ordinary demands of everyday life
- Has a subjective feeling of well-being
- Has the ability to enjoy life
Do you need to meet all these criteria to be mentally healthy?
You do not need all these signs to be mentally healthy
Not all these signs need to be present for you to be considered mentally healthy. Indeed, it would be hard to find a mentally healthy person that exhibits all these signs, and a mentally ill person who did not exhibit some of them. Remember that mental health is a continuum, and these signs are milestones along that continuum.
Each of us is different, and each of us makes our own definition of what mental health is. The definition will vary according to where you are in your life, and whether you are stable, moving toward mental illness, or moving away from it. The definition changes as you age, as your priorities and aspirations shift, and as you cope with life’s challenges.
Life does not stop for the person with a mental illness: They will grow older, they will encounter life challenges in addition to their mental challenges, their perspective of the world will change. The definition of mental health that might have fit before the person had a mental illness may not be the one that’s appropriate as they recover. This is a mistake many people make as they recover from a mental illness: They want to be “like they used to be,” which is impossible. We all change as we move along life’s journey, and no one, mentally ill or not, can return to the way they used to be.
My definition of mental health
Daily functionality, personal relationships, and life satisfaction
I put a great emphasis on daily functionality, personal relationships, and life satisfaction in my working definition of mental health. For people recovering from a mental illness, these three seem to be the most important factors in the depredations of their mental illness, and the most important factors indicating success in their climb toward recovery.
You can have a good life without meeting all the criteria for mental health
I think that one can have a fulfilling, productive life without meeting all the criteria for mental health listed above. Keep in mind that mental health is not the complete absence of mental illness, nor is mental illness the complete absence of mental health.
There is more to a good life than a list of criteria
We too often forget that there are other factors besides the ones on the list above that go into making a good life. A person’s feeling of contentment, fulfillment and achievement will go far toward making them feel mentally healthy.
Mental health is relative
And finally, I believe that mental health is a relative state, especially when we speak of it in contrast to mental illness. No one is completely mentally healthy, and no one is completely mentally ill. A person recovering from Agoraphobia may have a daily functionality, personal relationships and life satisfaction that leads to a fulfilling life, yet cannot claim a number of the factors in the list above. They are mentally healthy relative to their former state, and will pick up more of the list items as they recover more fully, but the mental health emphasis should rest on the fulfillment the person is getting from life.
What do you think?
In this first post of the series on “Living with Health, Wellness and Wholeness,” I have tried to give an overview of what professionals think mental health is, and how I define and use the term in this blog. As you can tell, my approach is somewhat different from the mainstream, emphasizing the individual’s assessment of their mental health, the relativity of mental health, and the recovery from mental illness.
- How would you define mental health?
- Do you have items that you would add to the list of mental health criteria?
- Do you agree that mental health is as much what you do as what you think?
As always, your comments are welcome!
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Resources used in this post:
Bessinger, Donivan. (2000). Carl G. Jung: A Brief Introduction to His Ideas. Retrieved from Journey into Wholeness Web site: http://users.aol.com/journeywh/jwjung.htm
Myers, Jane. (2004, April 23). Wellness Models, Assessment, Research. Retrieved August 4, 2008 from University of North Carolina at Greensboro Web site: http://www.uncg.edu/~jemyers/wellness/docs/wellness.htm
Satcher, David. (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General 1999. Retrieved July 29, 2008 from US Department of Health and Human Services Web site: http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/cre/ch1_scope.asp
Discovery Health: What Is Mental Health? http://health.discovery.com/centers/mental/whatis/whatis.html
Mental Wellness Information Emotional Wellness Mental Fitness Health Advice, Dr. Ron Sterling http://www.mentalwellness.ws/
Moving Towards Wholeness http://lessonsforliving.com/moving_towards_wholeness.htm