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Mental health is not the opposite of mental illness

Get the meaning of mental health and understand why self-care matters

What comes to mind when you hear the words mental health?

If you think of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, you are not alone. "Mental Health" and "Mental Illness" are often used interchangeably so thinking along those lines is not uncommon.

But you might be surprised to discover that the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of Mental Health doesn't mention illness at all.

Mental health is a state of well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their capabilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. WHO

Mental health is an umbrella term for how we are thinking, feeling, behaving, coping and relating.

Mental health is a continuum

Until very recently mental health was only viewed through a clinical or pathological lens, with severe diagnosis at one end and no diagnosis at the other.

Mental health viewed with pathological lens

However research in the early part of this century found that absence of symptoms of mental illness does not equate to the presence of positive emotions, life satisfaction or other indicators of well-being.

Many who are free of mental illness do not feel healthy, function well or lead productive lives.

What had become apparent is that mental health (well-being) and mental illness are two separate but connected constructs or correlated axes (Keyes, 2005).

At any moment, all of us can place ourselves somewhere on what is called the mental health/illness continuua.​

Mental health/illness continuua

Similar to physical health, there are different degrees of mental health.

We can have good, not so good and poor mental health days. It can change from day to day, even within a day depending on circumstances.

And, just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness (an upset stomach, for example), people can have poor mental health without a diagnosis of a mental illness, disorder or issue.

We might expect people living with a mental illness to be located in the bottom left quadrant. But mental health illnesses and disorders can be actively managed which means people can live high functioning lives leading to a high sense of wellbeing, regardless of diagnosis.

Think of Ruby Wax, Winston Churchill or Stephen Fry, all of whom suffer from depressive episodes.

Being responsible for our mental well-being

Like the term self-care, well-being is difficult to define.

It concerns how we are experiencing our lives and as such can be negative or positive.

It can be viewed through both a philosophical and a psychological lens and, among other things, theories have sub-divided it so that we may talk about physical, mental, emotional and financial well-being.

In my coaching and training programs, I define well-being as how well we are being; how well we are thinking, feeling and functioning (doing, relating, behaving) as we go about our daily lives.

I call these our 3 Fs (Finking, Feeling, Functioning) and we can use these as indicators as to the state of our mental health.

By taking care of our mental health, we can do all the things we wish to in our work and personal lives.

A first step in proactive self-care is identifying positive and healthful ways you can support yourself.

Research has found that there are five activities proven to protect and enhance our well-being.

The above link goes to a blog post where you can learn about five simple ways you can look after your wellbeing and download a related workbook to identify what works for you.

Take care of you.

Further Reading

Keyes CL. Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2005 Jun;73(3):539-48. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.73.3.539. PMID: 15982151.

Ryff CD, Keyes CL. The structure of psychological well-being revisited. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1995 Oct;69(4):719-27. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.69.4.719. PMID: 7473027.

Ryff CD, Dienberg Love G, Urry HL, Muller D, Rosenkranz MA, Friedman EM, Davidson RJ, Singer B. Psychological well-being and ill-being: do they have distinct or mirrored biological correlates? Psychother Psychosom. 2006;75(2):85-95. doi: 10.1159/000090892. PMID: 16508343.

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