Mental health is more than just being happy. In the past, many in healthcare have defined “health” as the absence of disease or illness, but in 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) broadened that definition, saying that health is “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” While this statement has been criticized by some as being unrealistic to maintain for any long period of time (the term “complete” is a high bar to set), this is one of the first official definitions that includes mental well-being as an indicator of health.

Eastern medicine views the body and mind as one. Any imbalance in either the body or the mind can result in a negative impact on the other.

Western doctors tend to separate the body into two parts: the physical and the mental. There is no crossover, generally, and each part functions autonomously without harming or helping the other.  While it is easy to figure out whether or not the body is healthy, assessing a person’s mental health can be a much more challenging task, especially if one views the mind and body as a connected system. It would seem easier to come up with a clear definition of mental health if it is separated from the physical body, but that has not been the case.

If we assume that mental health “refers to the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity (from the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health), we should be able to assess a person’s mental health on a continuum or evaluate their progress towards this definition’s goal, but not everyone defines mental health in this way. There are cultural definitions that differ.

Aboriginal people in Australia take a community approach to mental health, rather than placing the responsibility on the individual:  “…Health does not just mean the physical well-being of the individual but refers to the social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural well-being of the whole community.”  Some Muslim cultures believe that health is a gift to the people direct from the Prophet Muhammad, as evidenced by this quote from the Koran: “The Lord of the worlds; it is He who heals me when I am sick, and He who would cause me to die and live again” (Koran 26: 80). Indeed, many religions look upon mental health (or the lack thereof) as something controlled entirely by a deity.

Even taking into account the many definitions of mental health and variations across cultures, it seems clear that mental health is a necessary part of a person’s overall well-being. 

A holistic view of mental health includes looking at a person’s diet, exercise, and stress level in relation to their reported level of happiness. Even traditional Western doctors these days are beginning to understand more that the mental health of their patients is important to the success of treatment, especially when chronic illness involved. It seems clear now that understanding and maintaining mental health is crucial to leading a life that is satisfying and fulfilling.

Tell us: How do you define mental health?

Image by rohit gowaikar via Flickr


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