What is mental health, anyway?

Your Therapist Friend
3 min readApr 30, 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, how do we know what “mentally healthy” even looks like?

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

“Caring for your mental health” is at the forefront of many brands’ messaging right now in an attempt to sell us more products even in the midst of historic economic fallout. Although many of us intuitively know we won’t find mental peace via Amazon, it’s hard to articulate what “mental health” truly is.

Let’s talk about what mental health is not:

Mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness. Many people without symptoms or a diagnosis of a mental illness aren’t exactly mentally healthy; their lives are soaked in stress, rumination, obsession or self-loathing. A person may be lacking mental health without being mentally ill.

However, a person may have a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental disorder—and still be mentally healthy. In fact, many people with mental illness diagnoses are frequently more mentally healthy than those without because they’re forced to maintain a mental health routine to manage their symptoms.

But mental health is also not the same as happiness — for example, a person experiencing a manic episode or delusion could feel high levels of happiness, but their sense of reality endangers themselves or others. However, it’s fair to say most people feel happier when they’re mentally healthy than when they’re not.

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

… I see some problems with that definition.

Is someone not mentally healthy if they are disabled, unemployed or otherwise unable to “work productively” and “make a contribution”? What if they just don’t want to? Do we truly believe the mental health is a reflection of our ability to produce?

The World Psychiatric Association seemed to have the same concerns I listed. In 2015, they challenged the WHO definition in their article “Towards a New Definition of Mental Health”, primarily citing the observation that the WHO definition is centered on the values of…

Your Therapist Friend

Kayla Lane Freeman — Licensed therapist answering the internet’s questions about mental health, relationships and how to be in therapy