The Definition of Mental Health

How do you actually define what mental health is? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” Even the CDC has a little trouble nailing it down, but this definition does a good job of showing just how broad the scope of mental health really is.

To understand this term on an even deeper level, it can help to compare mental health to physical health. Just like your physical health, your mental health can change over time depending on various factors. When your mental health is suffering, you’ll start to notice symptoms the same way you would if a physical health issue popped up.

Mental health symptoms vary widely based on what you’re experiencing. However, the following signs may indicate that your mental health requires some attention:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative thought patterns
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Excessive drinking
  • Suicidal thoughts

Another similarity between physical health and mental health is that when challenges or issues arise, you should see a healthcare professional for help. Even if you do not have a diagnosable condition, your doctor can help you find ways to manage your mental health more effectively.

What Is Mental Wellness?

So, what’s the difference between mental wellness and mental health? The definitions of these terms cover similar territory, but they’re not exactly the same. According to the Global Wellness Institute, mental wellness is “an internal resource that helps us think, feel, connect, and function; it is an active process that helps us to build resilience, grow, and flourish.”

Thinking of mental wellness as a “resource” can be really useful in distinguishing it from mental health. You can gauge your mental health on any given day. Mental wellness, on the other hand, is more of a skill you can strengthen over time. It’s a quality you can draw upon when you are going through something difficult. Mental wellness gives you added resilience and helps you cope with life’s ups and downs.

Wondering about your own mental wellness? Here are some signs of mental wellness you can look for to gauge how you’re doing:

  • Expressing and regulating emotions in a healthy way
  • Forming and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses
  • Having a desire to learn and grow
  • Feeling generally positive or satisfied about your life
  • Maintaining a sense of purpose

Another way to think about mental wellness vs. mental health is the level of control involved. Often, mental health issues occur due to factors beyond our control, like genetics and difficult life circumstances. Mental wellness, on the other hand, is something that you can work to cultivate regardless of where your mental health is at. While strong mental wellness won’t necessarily overcome mental health challenges, it can definitely help as you try to manage things like stress, anxiety, or depression.

How Mental Illness Fits into the Picture

We’ve covered mental health and mental wellness, but what about mental illness? How does that factor into these aspects of our mental state? The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these).” It also clarifies just how common they are, with 19% of U.S. adults experiencing a mental illness in a given year.

One of the key factors which differentiates mental illnesses is that they are defined, diagnosable health conditions. Mental health can vary along a spectrum based on how you’re doing from day to day, but mental illnesses are disorders that can be treated. Examples of mental illnesses include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction disorders

If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with a mental illness or a mental health issue, make an appointment with a health care provider. They can provide an assessment and diagnosis when necessary and direct you toward the best treatment options for your condition.