What is Mental Health? Living with Health, Wellness and Wholeness

– Posted in: Opinion

Living with Health, Wellness and Wholeness is the tag line for this blog.

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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Related posts:


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

Further reading:

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

24 comments… add one
Kim Woodbridge October 24, 2008, 3:10 pm

I’m glad that mental health is a continuum and not an absolute. The other day when I was down I would not have been considered mentally healthy.

I’m also relieved that you don’t need to meet all the criteria on that list. :-) I’m not very good with relationships – I think it’s because I’m too good at another item on the list – independence …

It’s interesting that you think it’s more important for an individual to assess how well he is rather than a professional. I can see this being true in some instances but from my own personal experience the person in question insisted he was fine and stopped taking medication until everything came crashing down. I wish professionals had been listened to more in this case.

Mike October 24, 2008, 3:40 pm

Hi, Kim. Thanks for the comment!

I think I gave a false impression about the evaluation of mental health. Certainly, it is of the utmost importance that a mental health professional help a person evaluate their mental health. The post is worded badly, and I think I will correct the wording.

Thanks for pointing this out!

Kim Woodbridge October 24, 2008, 3:42 pm

Oh – I didn’t mean it like that. I was only speaking from the one experience that I’ve had. Maybe it depends on the type and severity of the illness …?

Mike October 24, 2008, 3:52 pm

Kim, after thinking it over, I just took that section out. It was a minor point anyway, and could be very misleading. The section actually is more cohesive and reads better without it.

What I meant was that it is very important for a person to believe in themselves and in the picture of mental health that they and their professional have formulated. Sometimes the opinion of non-experts can be harmful, whatever the good intentions. Actually, this is a good topic for a post, and I’ll be putting it on my list. But it’s too much to try to explain in a paragraph!

Thank you again for pointing this out. I think the post is stronger without it.

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Christina October 19, 2016, 2:35 pm

You have a very comprehensive list of mental wellness traits. Some readers will be relieved to know that they do not need to meet all of these requirements, as you’ve shared.

treating disorders NJ January 18, 2017, 2:41 am

Psychiatrist Services really helps with battling your own issues for you to be better.

home and community care March 26, 2017, 6:39 am

Mike, I really like reading your article. I’m still trying to sync it in to my brain. I need to know this for myself for future reference.

Psychiatry Morris County April 8, 2017, 11:00 am

Effective anxiety reduction is often about distraction, since your mind can be your worst enemy when you have severe anxiety symptoms. A very effective technique is to talk to someone you like and trust, especially on the phone. Don’t be shy about your anxiety tell them you feel anxious and explain what you’re feeling.

in home care April 8, 2017, 1:18 pm

It is really important that we should be mentally fit or healthy. Being healthy will make us think that anything could be possible. What I mean is we could do it, whatever we are thinking of.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder April 12, 2017, 1:40 am

If your battles with your mental issues are getting tough don’t be afraid to ask for a psychiatrist.

noor September 24, 2017, 12:13 pm

Thanks a lot for sharing such a great idea.

Madison September 24, 2017, 12:21 pm

I think the focus on mental health is very important especially in our schools but I am sure that there are a lot of parents who won’t feel the same way because they don’t see mental health as importantly as they do physical health.

Susan Stukes November 30, 2017, 12:15 am

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very nice and really informative post, keep writing

Usman November 18, 2018, 8:45 am

Very nice and informative post keep writing it is great important that we should be mentally fit such type of blog help me in this case thanks for sharing.

Alex February 6, 2019, 11:33 am

It’s very important to have a healthy life and mentally and physically fit to live and enjoy life fully, that’s why they say Health is Wealth. Thanks for sharing and to aware us with this information.

Ravindra Negi March 12, 2019, 8:08 am

I think this is an ideal criteria for an ideal world. We live in a world where adaptation is important. But one may not be adept at adapting but would accept that and be happy with it. Yes it is true that to live life fully and longer maintaining mental health is necessary.

Amazer March 13, 2019, 5:35 am

To develop a radical mindset, you have to think positively in all aspects. Focus on the end objective and leave the how part completely! The law of attraction techniques like positive thinking and visualization helps alot to develop a healthy mindset.

Jacob Harry April 6, 2019, 3:03 am

Hi mike nichols.
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