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!

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