What is mental health?

It’s an expression we use every day, so it might surprise you that the term ‘mental health’ is frequently misunderstood.

‘Mental health’ is often used as a substitute for mental health conditions – such as depression, anxiety conditions, schizophrenia, and others.

According to the World Health Organization, however, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

So rather than being about ‘what’s the problem?’ it’s really about ‘what’s going well?'

''Mental health is about wellness rather than illness''

To make things a bit clearer, some experts have tried coming up with different terms to explain the difference between ‘mental health’ and ‘mental health conditions’. Phrases such as ‘good mental health’, ‘positive mental health’, ‘mental wellbeing’, ‘subjective wellbeing’ and even ‘happiness’ have been proposed by various people to emphasise that mental health is about wellness rather than illness. While some say this has been helpful, others argue that using more words to describe the same thing just adds to the confusion.

As a result, others have tried to explain the difference by talking about a continuum where mental health is at one end of the spectrum – represented by feeling good and functioning well – while mental health conditions (or mental illness) are at the other – represented by symptoms that affect people’s thoughts, feelings or behaviour.

The benefits of staying well

Research shows that high levels of mental health are associated with increased learning, creativity and productivity, more pro-social behaviour and positive social relationships, and with improved physical health and life expectancy. In contrast, mental health conditions can cause distress, impact on day-to-day functioning and relationships, and are associated with poor physical health and premature death from suicide.

But it’s important to remember that mental health is complex. The fact that someone is not experiencing a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean their mental health is flourishing. Likewise, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while feeling well in many aspects of life. 

Ultimately, mental health is about being cognitively, emotionally and socially healthy – the way we think, feel and develop relationships - and not merely the absence of a mental health condition.

beyondblue's vision is that everyone achieves their best possible mental health 

While beyondblue’s primary focus is on the needs of people affected by depression, anxiety and suicide, we also believe that a better understanding of what we mean by mental health and how to achieve it will help everyone in Australia reach their full potential. This will also contribute to the prevention of mental health conditions, and support people who have experienced these conditions to get as well as they can and lead full and contributing lives.

Having social connections, good personal relationships and being part of a community are vital to maintaining good mental health and contribute to people's recovery, should they become unwell.

However, if you feel that you may be affected by depression or anxiety remember they are treatable conditions and effective treatments are available. The earlier you seek support, the better.