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Mental health is a concept that refers to a human individual's emotional and psychological well-being. Merriam-Webster defines mental health as "A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no one "official" definition of mental health. Cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing professional theories all affect how "mental health" is defined. In general, most experts agree that "mental health" and "mental illness" are not opposites. In other words, the absence of a recognized mental disorder is not necessarily an indicator of mental health.

One way to think about mental health is by looking at how effectively and successfully a person functions. Feeling capable and competent; being able to handle normal levels of stress, maintain satisfying relationships, and lead an independent life; and being able to "bounce back," or recover from difficult situations, are all signs of mental health.


Some experts consider mental health as a continuum. Thus, an individual's mental health may have many different possible values. Mental wellness is generally viewed as a positive attribute, such that a person can reach enhanced levels of mental health, even if they do not have any diagnosable mental illness. This definition of mental health highlights emotional well being, the capacity to live a full and creative life and the flexibility to deal with life's inevitable challenges. Many therapeutic systems and self-help books offer methods and philosophies espousing presumably effective strategies and techniques for further improving the mental wellness of otherwise healthy people.

World Health Organization definition of mental health

"Mental health has been defined variously by scholars from different cultures. Concepts of mental health include subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, intergenerational dependence, and self-actualization of one's intellectual and emotional potential, among others. From a cross-cultural perspective, it is nearly impossible to define mental health comprehensively. It is, however, generally agreed that mental health is broader than a lack of mental disorders." [1]

Mental hygiene concept

Dr. William Glasser, a psychiatrist engaged in therapeutics and counseling, describes 'Mental Hygiene' in his book Mental Health or Mental Illness (1961), following the dictionary definition of hygiene as the establishment and maintenance of health, i.e. mental health. Currently, many mental health professionals focus less upon enhancing mental health than on treating psychological symptoms with psychoactive medications.

Mental health, as a concept, is quite distinct from mental illness, and enhancement of mental health plays no part in what most mental health professionals actually do. Instead, the Western medical model relies primarily upon the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) or ICD-10 to diagnose and treat the symptoms associated with what they call mental illnesses and disorders.


Physicians, including psychiatrists, and other health and mental health professionals and researchers, generally agree that an illness is likely present when a defined pathology can be found in brain tissue. Illness that directly arise in connection with such pathology are often neurological in nature; Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease are two examples. When no known identifiable organic or physical pathology is present, as is often the case in patients diagnosed with depression, mania, neurosis, and other mental illnesses, the question arises as to whether it is correct to attribute the very real symptoms to scientifically defined causes, i.e. a specific pathology. To a degree, certain indicators, such as reduced thyroid function, support medical hypotheses such as the chemical imbalance theory. The DSM-IV defines and attributes mental illnesses to 'chemical imbalances', for which neuropsychiatric drugs are now widely (and in the view of some board certified psychiatrists, wrongly) prescribed. (See Glasser: WARNING--Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous To Your Mental Health (Harper-Collins, 2004) and Treating Mental Health as a Public Health Problem -- A New Leadership Role for the Helping Professions [2] and Robert Whitaker: Mad In America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (Perseus Publishing, 2002))

Opposition to biological psychiatry

Opposing viewpoints to biological psychiatry theories include those of anti-psychiatry advocates, who contend psychiatric patients do not necessarily have a mental illness, but in fact are individuals who do not ascribe to the conventional belief system, or consensus reality, shared by most other people in their culture.

Dr. Glasser defines mental health as an entity completely separate from mental illness, explaining that as long as the Western medical model prevails, the mental health profession will be unable to affordably deliver the services many people need. Dr. Glasser asserts that the Public Health model is much better suited to delivering mental health than the prevailing medical model.

According to some critics of the reigning medical model, such as Glasser, the Public Health model has been successfully delivering physical health to millions of people for hundreds of years. He explains how this model could be expanded into a low cost Public Mental Health Delivery model, one that could be put into practice easily by all mental health professionals and institutions, by hiring mental health professionals to deliver services without diagnoses (and without strict reliance on drugs) directly to people who need professional help.

Dr. Glasser's work is closely associated with Choice theory.

Mental health promotion

Mental health promotion works from the principle that everyone has mental health needs, not just people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Mental health promotion is essentially concerned with making changes to society that will promote people's mental well-being.

Mental health promotion is a term that covers a variety of strategies. These strategies can be seen to occur at three levels:

  • Individual - encouragement of invidual resources by promotion of interventions for self-esteem, coping, assertiveness in areas such as parenting, the workplace or personal relationships.
  • Communities - increasing social inclusion and cohesion, developing support structures that promote mental health in workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods.
  • Government reduce socioeconomic barriers to mental health at governmental level by promoting equal access for all and support for vulnerable citizens.

See also

Further reading

  • Nesse, R.M. (2005). Evolutionary Psychology and Mental Health. In D. Buss (Ed.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, [[]], John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken , NJ, pp. 903-937. Full text

External links