There’s no doubt that discussions about mental health and the need for robust and accessible interventions have entered the larger cultural and political discourse. This is certainly a positive development, particularly when we think about the concerning public health crisis when it comes to mental health struggles. Despite several efforts to break the shackles of stigma and shame surrounding mental health and integrate it into meaningful, discernible, audible public discourse, there’s still a lot left to learn about mental health. Scholars Wren-Lewis and Alexandrova point out that while there is a lot of enthusiasm around the concept of mental health and a recognition of its importance in human life, it isn’t quite clear what mental health really means and if there’s a sole underlying concept supporting it, like a plinth holding up a statue.
So, what is mental health?
Is mental health just the absence of mental illness, or a psychiatric condition? Wren-Lewis and Alexandrova point out the “thinness” of this definition. Conceiving mental health as merely a state bereft of a mental illness perilously ties it to “psychiatric value judgements” and leaves it too constrained, too cloistered and too vulnerable to stigmatization. It is possible, writes scholar Simon Keller, to have poor mental health while not having a mental illness. The absence of mental illness doesn’t preclude you from being tired, unmotivated, stressed, and so on. Similarly, one might have a mental illness and still be in possession of positive mental health, for they might be in control of their illness through medication, adequate support, effective coping methods, etc.
Conversely, taking on an excessively positive definition of mental health à la the World Health Organization (which defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes 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”) can also be detrimental. This is because this definition proves to be “ incredibly demanding.” It sets a high bar, requiring one to have complete realization of one’s potential, work productively and make contributions to their community. Wren-Lewis and Alexandrova remark that “a lot of seemingly well-functioning people would plausibly fail this test.”
Relationship between mental health and well-being
It’s important to note that this WHO definition opens up a useful dialogue about the relationship between mental health and well-being, for it regards mental health to be “a state of well-being.” Does this then mean that the two (mental health and well-being) are identical?
Wren-Lewis and Alexandrova propose the following definition of mental health: “the capacities of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enable us to value and engage in life.” In this regard, mental health and well-being don’t seem to mirror each other. They aren’t identical. It may mean that mental health encompasses the “psychological capacities” that enable well-being. Mental health may be a “precondition of well-being, without being identical to well-being.”
However, this can be further problematized, for is there really such a hierarchical relationship between mental health and well-being? The relationship between mental health and well-being seems more symbiotic, for what is well-being? What does it entail? Simon Keller writes that centrally well-being includes “being happy, being content, and relating well to those around you and the world at large.” While positive mental health can give a fillip to better interpersonal relationships, good interpersonal relationships can lead to the development of positive mental health. Positive mental health may allow for contentment. Similarly, practicing contentment can bolster good mental health. Today mental health apps can help you with cognitive behavioral therapy, while also giving you access to engaging mindfulness activities and guided meditations. This symbiosis may be applicable to different aspects of well-being and mental health.
- Mental health leads to greater productivity and an improved proclivity to exercise, meditate and practice yoga. However, cultivating a lifestyle that’s inclusive of exercise, meditation and yoga can lead to the creation of better mental health.
- Positive mental health can lead to better dietary practices and create greater motivation to seek artistic and creative pursuits. However, good dietary practices and the habit of integrating artistic and creative pursuits into your life can lead to improved positive mental health.
Mental health and well-being are vital for a good and healthy life
Irrespective of the relationship mental health has with the conceptual notion of well-being (or the relationship that well-being has with the conceptual notion of mental health), there is no denying that this lattice is vital in the creation of a good and healthy life. There is abundant scholarship depicting the correlations between mental health and physiological health, mental health and mortality rates, and mental health and better overall functioning. Social psychologist, Corey L. M. Keys, writes that adults who were diagnosed as “completely mentally healthy” showed superior functioning in terms of:
- Fewest missed workdays
- Fewest work cutbacks
- Daily living and activities hindered less due to health limitations
- Fewest chronic physical diseases and conditions
- Lowest healthcare utilization
- Highest level of psychosocial functioning, which means that individuals reported the highest levels of functional goals, intimacy and self-reported resilience and the lowest levels of perceived helplessness
Therapeutic interventions (whether they be traditional face-to-face therapy methods or digital app therapeutic alliances) integrate important aspects that are ascribed to well-being (meditation, box breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, and so on) into psychotherapy and cognitive behavior therapy. For instance, a mental health app like Wysa offers CBT along with valuable mindfulness, guided meditation exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, mood check-ins, sleep hygiene checks and tools for developing better sleep habits. This lattice of mental health and well-being helps in the creation of a healthy and full life. Thus, it is valuable to understand all its nuances and to create infrastructural support that is scalable and clinically meaningful.