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Mental health is not the opposite of mental illness

Understand the meaning of mental health and learn 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're not alone. The terms "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 simply an umbrella term for how we are thinking, feeling, relating, coping and behaving.

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 a clinical lens

However research in the early part of this century found that absence of mental illness symptoms did not equate to life satisfaction, feeling good or other indicators of wellbeing.

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

What became apparent is that mental health (a state of wellbeing) 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 are called the mental health-illness continuua.​

Mental health/illness continuua

Our sense of wellbeing and our ability to think, feel and work well can change from day to day, even within a day, depending on circumstances.

We can have good, not so good and, poor mental health days.

And, just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness (a headache, for example), people can have poor mental health without having a mental health issue. You're simply not functioning well.

Whilst someone living with a mental illness can live high functioning lives, regardless of a diagnosis, because issues can be successfully managed. Think of Ruby Wax, Winston Churchill or Stephen Fry, all of whom are known to live with depressive episodes.

Looking after your wellbeing

In my coaching and training programs, I define wellbeing as how well we are being. That means how well we are thinking, feeling and functioning (coping, relating, behaving).

I call these our 3 Fs (Finking, Feeling, Functioning) and encourage people to use them as wellbeing indicators. Because, if we can notice when we are not thinking, feeling or functioning well we can take action to improve our sense of wellbeing.

Fortunately research has found that there are five simple activities proven to protect and enhance wellbeing. Ensuring we do these each day is a means to proactively manage our wellbeing. This is self-care.

Whilst we can often help ourselves to feel good and function well, self-care also means recognising when we need the support of others whether that’s a friend, manager, stress management coach, GP or mental health professional.

Take care of you.

Further Reading

Westerhof GJ, Keyes CL. Mental Illness and Mental Health: The Two Continua Model Across the Lifespan. J Adult Dev. 2010 Jun;17(2):110-119. doi: 10.1007/s10804-009-9082-y. Epub 2009 Aug 26. PMID: 20502508; PMCID: PMC2866965.

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.

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.

Keyes CL. The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. J Health Soc Behav. 2002 Jun;43(2):207-22. PMID: 12096700.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.


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