understanding mental health

may is mental health month. it might be useful to think about what we’re talking about here.

what is mental health?

there are many definitions out there. years ago i wrote a paper about my definition but i can’t find that paper anymore. so why not try again. let’s see …

mental. health.


mental comes from the latin word mens, which means mind. there are more ideas about what “mind” is than we’ll ever have time to talk about here; i think we’re forced to come up with our own definition for this one, too. so what do i think is that thing called “mind”?

it’s the intangible stuff inside a person. wait, just inside a person? animals, too? do you think a dog has a mind? a parrot? a sharK? a bee? we’re just a few words into this and already we get entangled. so let’s just say that non-humans may have a mind, too, but for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll limit it to humans.

“the intangible stuff inside a person” is too vague. we have names for the stuff: emotion, heart, feelings, thinking, perceiving, consciousness, soul, dreams, desire … (what have i left out?). when we use the word “mental”, at one point or another, we touch on all of these. but how do we fit all of these under one hat? is the word “mental” that hat?

how about “the inner life”? is that more descriptive than “mental”?

now of course what happens in that inner life – desire, particularly – influences very much what we do. they call that “behaviour”. indeed, for a long time, psychology (meaning “the science [-logy] of the soul [psych-]”) was referred to as the “science of behaviour.” so we could say that “mental” is about behaviour, too.

is “mental”, then, about the whole human experience, minus the physical stuff? not really. our experience and use of our body is profoundly influenced by the intangible stuff. how our eyes, ears and noses perceive is mental; how we experience pain is mental; how we have sex and deal with a cold is mental. many would argue that healing, from anything from cancer to broken bones to pneumonia, is at least partly mental.

seen like this, “mental” is a good two-thirds of our experience.


let’s move on to “health” now, a concept even vaguer than “mental”, if that’s possible. “health” is related to “whole”. so presumbly, if we have health, we have wholeness. and already, we’re back to perception because our being is so complex, we’re not able to tell whether we are completely whole. all we can talk about are those aspects that are in our awareness. which depends on the mind again. some people, both my daughters for example, are extremely aware of the far reaches of their bodies. every bruise registers on the richter scale. does that mean they are less healthy than the football player who keeps going even with a broken arm? and then there’s the story that everyone has come across – the health nut who suddenly dies of cancer. one day, there is health, the next day the opposite.

health is also often mentioned in connection with “wellbeing”. this is not a bad concept, since it alludes more clearly to the perception of wellness in the moment. the runner who trots along vigorously experiences wellbeing one moment, but not the next. it takes away at least a bit of the absolute claim of “wholeness”. that has advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see in a moment.

mental health

in physical health, there are certain crude measures that establish the (possible) existence of health, such as blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, a lung x-ray, oxygen uptake, etc. and while in mental health, we have a big tome that tells us about symptoms of mental illness (the DSM, or diagnostic and statistical manual), there is nothing that details symptoms of mental health. so again, everyone is left to their own devices. of course, one can take a few tests to see whether they are “normal” (for example, there is a myriad of stress tests and depression tests; there is also the emotional IQ, or EQ) but most of that is totally driven by the medical model of looking for the absence of illness.

the absence of mental illness is, in fact, what most people are after. while that’s not a bad idea, it has a number of ramifications. mental illness still carries a huge stigma so understandably, most people go out of their way to make sure that they don’t carry that stigma. however, not being “branded” by a psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as mental health. it just means you don’t have the sticker glued to you that screams, “mentally ill!” in many instances this means that people who could easily get help for a comparatively minor problem such as situational depression won’t get that help, which then in turn magnifies the problem.

the idea of the absence of mental illness also hinges on how you define mental illness. “i’m not crazy like my brother-in-law who’s spent the last 5 years in the psych ward” says the hyper anxious weekend binge drinker, happy in her “knowledge” that she’s not mentally ill. let’s say we don’t know whether in fact she is mentally ill – but it’s pretty clear that she is not enjoying good mental health. she also illustrates the disadvantage of the idea of “wellbeing” because once she’s had her fourth drink, she might very easily experiences a few hours of feeling very well. (interesting idea: we could perhaps make a difference between “wellfeeling”, a momentary illusion of wellness, and “wellbeing”, which might refer to something than runs a bit deeper.)

has this thinking out loud helped? let’s try on this definition/description:

mental health is authentically felt wellbeing in all aspects of one’s inner life and behaviour.

i would love to hear about YOUR ideas!


  1. My definition of health is doing well where you are.

    Mental means our thoughts and feelings.

    Creativity and compassion are the measures of mental health.

    All this would involve much expansion and defense but in outline that’s my take on it.

  2. thanks, evan!

    so how about this, then:

    “individuals experience mental health when they feel they are doing well their thoughts and feelings regardless of their present circumstances. creativity and compassion are two hallmarks of mental health.”

    i really like the “where you are” part (is it ok to translate that into “present circumstances”?)

    creativity and compassion happen to be two things that are important to me but personally, i don’t know if i would include that in the definition. however, i would probably include that in a definition of spiritual health. which brings up the question – can we talk about mental health without alluding to spiritual health?

    another thing i thought of as i cobbled together the definition to fit your ideas, evan, especially as i was going back and forth between using the term “individuals” and “she or he”: when i ended up using the plural, i started asking myself, ok, that’s the mental health of ONE person. what about the mental health of groups? families, for example, or work teams, or entire countries?
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..understanding mental health =-.

  3. Hi Isabella I like it. Maybe use compassion and creativity as measures rather than in the defintion?

    As to groups, this has been a fascination of mine, but I haven’t got far in thinking about it. Bion’s T-groups are I think the best insight into group functioning.

    I think there is something like a continuum from task group to natural grouping (small groups, families up to tribal size); formal to informal; task defined to amorphous.

    The health would be the grouping maintaining its viability in its environment. (De Geus’ stuff on companies changing over time is interesting – he ends up with the learning organisation.) The focus would be on adjustment to the environment. There would need to be some way to track information (and other resource) flows.

    If you or others have ideas on this I would love to hear them. Groups are essential for our health and planetary survival I think

  4. Great post, Isabella; also, great comments from the commenters. I suppose I’ll add a little. Let me propose a necessary paradox: I have two mental illnesses, and I’m mentally healthy. I don’t think mental health needs to occur in a vacuum or even the absence of illness, but rather involves acting appropriately and reacting dynamically to whatever comes up, rather like Evan’s ideas on adaptability I think. If I wait for the absence of illness, that is, if I wait for the absence of my depressive or anxious processes, I’m going to be waiting a long damn time. But if I acknowledge those depressive or anxious processes and then proceed onward, I’ve reacted appropriately and healthily. Suppressing or denying the thoughts would be just as pathological as the processes that created those thoughts, maybe moreso.

    I’m not enamored with the idea of wholeness myself. I think it can be a bit of a stretch to tell someone being hollowed out by depression “You’re not considered mentally healthy until you’re whole.” I don’t know what wholeness is; I don’t think I’ve ever felt it. I don’t see how I ever will. I don’t think my lack of wholeness is a detriment to how I approach situations, relationships, or life events. So I’m unsure why it would be a necessary component of mental health.

    After going through the fire of depression and the paralyzing ice of anxiety, mental health to me is the ability to experience life without being significantly influenced by illness or pathology. The ability to live my life and recognize my depression and anxiety, acknowledge it, and proceed in a dynamic and vibrant manner appropriate to the circumstances.

  5. @evan, i think we really started something here with the mental health in groups idea. i made myself a note to think and write about that soon.

    @ian what you said about having a mental illness yet having mental health is SUPER important! we can be healthy individuals who occasionally struggle with feelings and thoughts that are painful and limiting. i like how you talk about “reacting appropriately”. interestingly enough, for a while, mental health was described in terms of “adjustment”. (that concept has a bit of a conformist connotation, so it’s not used that much right now.)

    your thoughts on wholeness are worth thinking about. i’m not sure if i know what wholeness is, either 🙂

    @lisa, thanks for visiting here! thank you for mentioning the importance of relationships. i was thinking about that when i used the term “behaviour” (i.e. behaviour with others) but it really is important to spell it out. unless you’re a happy narcissist, mental health is unimaginable with at least reasonably well functioning relationships.
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..bryan alexander improv =-.

  6. “individuals experience mental health when they feel they are doing well their thoughts and feelings regardless of their present circumstances. creativity and compassion are two hallmarks of mental health.”

    I like the way you think! I approach these conundrums in a very similar manner, dissecting then rebuilding to find my meaning from the parts.

    What you wrote in the quote I pulled from your post – was my goal in my own journey of self discovery. Great minds….:)

    For me personally – if I am living this (quote) then my life in all areas is balanced. I find my well being from within rather than asking of any person or expecting any circumstance to adjust in order for me to find this strength from within. My entire goal has been to learn how to be ok in this world, around the people of the world without expecting any person place or thing to adjust in order for me to experience that state of “mental wellness”.

    Self Empowered Healing so rocks!

  7. yeah, susan, great minds … 🙂

    i’m also happy that you brought up the term of mental wellness. thank you!

    self empowered healing … one book that has made a HUGE impression on me regarding self empowerment is not about mental health but about learning and creativity. you might find it interesting; it’s discussed here https://www.moritherapy.org/article/josh-waitzkin-an-inspiring-performer/
    .-= isabella mori´s last blog ..tony schwartz: the way we’re working isn’t working =-.

  8. My thoughts: Mental wellness is a feeling of well being as experienced by the individuals ability to be in and of the larger world and evidenced by behavior that exhibits independence and interdependence in both familial and social environments (vs the dependence and avoidance or addictive (or abusive) behaviors exhibited by those who are experiencing emotional and cognitive distress)

    No one has the right to define the “rightness” of another. Mental wellness is evidenced by ones ability to be in and of the greater world without requiring accommodation or expecting anything or anyone to change in order to be “ok” or to observe a reduction in “symptoms”.

  9. Sorry Isabella, I can’t get behind it! Too much Buddhist identification and too strong an appearance of moralism. People without the sufficient Buddhist background won’t understand the references, so it carries a number of larger conversations with it. And in using the word “right” we have to assume that anything not under those parameters falls under the category “wrong.” It adds another level of stigma, not to mention another level of worry.
    .-= Ian Campbell´s last blog ..Make Something Magazine =-.

  10. @ian – you definitely have a point there with the “right” – it’s always been a word that has sat well with me, but for reasons that are somewhat arcane and can’t be expected to have a lot of public appeal.

    @susan and @evan – that would always be my hope: that “right” would be self-defined. but is it a reasonably hope?

    back to more mulling-over!
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..health and sustainability on a wordless wednesday =-.

  11. “right” is a label, one that implies there is also a “wrong”. This is also fodder for distorted thinking and a fertilizer for “should’s” which leads to “should nots” and so on…not so helpful in my opinion.

  12. PS “self defined” perhaps. But who sets the groundwork for defining “right” so that one can have a framework for a beginning?

    Who gets to tell the addict who chooses they are “right” enough or the agoraphobiac who believes isolation is “right” for them that they may need to revisit that idea?

    And more importantly, how will they be guided to the insight that will empower them to make that distinction of “rightness” or “wrongness”?

    The focus becomes once again that of defining another with a label…”right” “wrong”….life is not black and white like that. Define “well” perhaps.

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