What Is Mental Health?

Mental health is the range of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that impact one's wellbeing. Just like physical health, mental health is important for daily functioning. Difficulties with mental health can impact a variety of factors in one's life, from relationships, to education, employment, recreation, motivation, and personal enjoyment.

There is no definition of optimal mental health. The range of what is most healthy for a single individual can vary based on circumstances, culture, family upbringing, personality, and preference. There are, however, definitions of mental health conditions that cause an individual significant stress or impairment in daily functioning. These mental health disorders are classified according to symptoms. A diagnosable mental health condition/disorder requires meeting criteria as observed by a licensed professional.

Prevalence of mental health conditions

Mental disorders occur across the world. They are not unique to any nation, group, or culture, though some populations have higher prevalence and incidence rates of specific disorders than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, for 2015 in the Unites States, approximately 43.4 million adults age 18 or older had any mental illness, 9.8 million adults had a serious mental illness, and 13% of children (age 8-15 years) had a diagnosable mental disorder.1

Cause of mental health conditions

What causes mental health disorders is a difficult question. For many mental health conditions, genetic and biological factors interact with life circumstances to trigger onset. The range of life circumstances that can lead to mental health difficulties includes negative life events, exposure to violence, sexual and physical abuse, trauma, low stress tolerance, financial hardship, belonging to a minority or discriminated against group, displacement, and living with a physical disease or chronic illness. Not all individuals who undergo such circumstances develop mental health conditions, however a percentage of vulnerable individuals will.

Common mental health conditions

Some of the more common categories and diagnoses of mental health conditions are:

Major Depressive Disorder:

Characterized by persistent low moods and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Often accompanied by sleep disturbance.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder:

Episodes of frequent, intense, and overwhelming anxiety.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

A chronic condition where people perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions) in response to continuous and uncontrollable thoughts or urges (obsessions).

Eating Disorders:

Includes anorexia nervosa (an obsessive desire to lose weight by food avoidance and/or compulsive exercise), bulimia nervosa (periods of excessive eating followed by efforts to avoid weight gain) and binge-eating disorder (frequent episode of loss of control over eating, generally resulting in high weight gain).

Schizophrenia Spectrum and Psychotic disorders:

A group of chronic conditions characterized by an impaired ability to discern reality. Audible and visual hallucinations are a hallmark characteristic. Abnormal movement and fragmented speech are also common.

Bipolar Disorder:

Separated into type 1 and 2, bipolar disorder involves a fluctuation between extremes of elevated and depressed moods.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

A syndrome caused by singular, ongoing, or early trauma or witnessing violence that causes significant impairment, recurrent thoughts of the trauma, and difficulty coping and performing daily tasks.

Insomnia and hypersomnia:

Characterized by disturbances in sleep and waking cycles, either in difficulty falling or remaining asleep, or in sleeping too much.

Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders:

A dependence or addiction to specific substances, as well as behavior like gambling.

Personality Disorders:

A group of diagnoses characterized by inflexible and lasting personality styles. The personality causes impairment in significant areas of functioning.

In addition to those listed, there are also dissociative, somatic symptom, elimination, sexual dysfunction, gender dysphoria, impulse and conduct control, paraphilic, neurodevelopmental and neurocognitive disorders. The categories and specific diagnoses of mental disorders help a practitioner assess and formulate the best treatment approach.

Relationship between physical health and mental health

For those living with a physical health condition, the risk of having difficulties with mental health is heightened. For example, rates of major depressive disorder are significantly higher in individuals suffering from poor health and physical disease than in the general population. The reasons for this can be many: increased difficulty managing the tasks of daily life, increased financial strain, chronic pain, feeling isolated, the loss of ability and/or employment, being stigmatized, low levels of understanding and empathy from others, and the difficulty of medical management. Likewise, the onset of a physical disease can be frightening, distressing, and anxiety provoking. Plans for the future may be altered due to disease, as can relationships to others. Medication for treating illness can also affect thoughts and mood (steroids for controlling inflammation for example), as can the physiological process of some diseases (hypothyroidism for example). If you have a physical health condition, you live with an array of stresses, hardships, and potential variables like medication and the illness itself that can leave you vulnerable to the onset of a mental health condition.

Treatment for mental health

Just as there are treatments for many physical diseases, there are interventions for mental health conditions. Mental Health intervention can include medication, psychotherapy, learning positive coping skills, behavioral change plans, social programs, support groups, or residency in facilities for daily monitoring and increased care. Any of these can be applied in combination.

There is an array of qualified professionals who can begin assessment of a mental health condition and formulate an approach for treatment: medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors (doctoral and masters degree level), and clinical social workers. Every individual responds differently to treatment, and no one intervention works identically for every person. Someone with generalized anxiety disorder for example, may respond well to anti-anxiety medication (anxiolytics), whereas someone else with the same diagnosis may not. Many mental health conditions are treatable and patients show improvement over time. A small percentage of individuals who seek professional help do not respond to intervention. Though there are no cures for mental health conditions, there is help.

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