What’s the Right Definition of Mental Health?

I’ll be honest – I had a totally different idea for today’s blog post. I was going to talk about how we define mental health and, using some definitions I found, introduce ways that we can recognize the practice of mental health in our lives. But after looking up those definitions, I couldn’t. Because after looking at two differing definitions for even a moment, it was clear why there’s confusion about what mental health actually is.

Definitions of Mental Health

First, we’ll take a look at two definitions of mental health – one from the dictionary, and one from the World Health Organization.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “The condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and the ability to meet the demands of daily life.”

World Health Organization: “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her 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.”

At first glance, those definitions look extremely similar, don’t they? Let’s be honest, most of us would find this definition by searching ‘mental health definition’ and clicking on the first link we see – that is if we don’t just read the definition in the search results and be on our way. But if we do that, we’ll see that dictionary definition. And here’s why that’s not helpful.

While both definitions acknowledge being in a good state of mind, there’s an important distinction between the two. While WHO says that mental health is a state of well-being, the page that has its definition is also clear to mention:

“Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. The WHO constitution states: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” An important implication of this definition is that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.”

Translation: mental health isn’t just the absence of mental health disorders, but a state of well-being that should be aspired to. Which leads me to that other definition, the one that includes this caveat: characterized by the absence of mental illness. That means that mental health only exists if you aren’t suffering from mental illness.

Can I Practice Mental Health? YES!

I don’t have time to tell you how wrong that is…actually, you know what? I DO. By that definition, by saying that mental health only exists in a space where mental illness doesn’t, that would mean that I haven’t practiced the dictionary’s definition of mental health in the past DECADE. And if you’ve followed this blog for even a moment, you know that’s not true.

A few months back, I wrote about the difference between mental health and mental illness. A key point I made is that even if you don’t have symptoms of mental illness, you should still be able to discuss your mental health. But according to the dictionary, since I have symptoms of mental illness, since it isn’t absent in my life, I can’t practice mental health. And it’s not just Merriam-Webster – Cambridge’s definition decides to be even blunter by calling itthe condition of someone’s mind and whether or not they are suffering from any mental illness.” HM. HMMMM.

Where to Learn About Mental Health

You might be saying, Well, WHO defines mental health differently. NAMI celebrates Mental Health Month. AFSP uses the term ‘mental health condition’. All of those are better than some silly dictionary definitions. And you’re right, they are. But who knows to look there? People already in the mental health field, in that space. What about a person who just wants to know more? If they just want to learn more about mental health conditions and disorders, to learn about something they’re dealing with or to be an ally?

I understand that just like any other topic of importance, things can be misconstrued about mental health. But this is not one of them. Sometimes I tell people to just search for more information on the Internet and they can read what they find. And if you have some background, it might not be a bad suggestion. But if someone doesn’t know much about mental health and wants to learn? Look up the World Health Organization. National Alliance on Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health. American Psychiatric Association. I can come up with a comprehensive list if I need to. But please, for the love of all that is good, do not tell them to just ‘look it up’. Not anymore.

Lemony Snicket



6 thoughts on “What’s the Right Definition of Mental Health?

  1. mentalhealth360.uk May 12, 2020 / 1:41 pm

    Agree Nathan, I’ve had to be more specific when people ask the questions and need to know where to find relevant, current and appropriate information 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Smith May 12, 2020 / 8:28 pm

      Most people think they know where to look, but it’s harder than it should be to find the most relevant information for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kim Petitt May 17, 2020 / 4:12 pm

    As a graduate student in psychology the title of your post caught my attention. We must take care of our mental health especially during these times of isolation and social distancing.

    Liked by 1 person

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