What Is Mental Health?

Young couple with baby sitting at table

Hinterhaus Productions / Taxi / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Mental Health?

Mental health is a term used to describe emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The quality of a person's mental health is often measured by how adaptively they can cope with everyday stressors.

Mental health allows people to use their abilities, be productive, make decisions, and play an active role in their communities.

Having poor mental health is often confused with having a mental illness. But mental health actually refers to a person's state of mental well-being whether or not they have a psychiatric condition.

History of Mental Health

A paper in the World Psychiatry journal states that mental health officially emerged as its own field of study in 1946 during the International Health Conference.

It was during this conference that the World Health Organization (WHO) was founded. The WHO Constitutions stated that mental "well-being" is an integral part of overall health, even in the absence of psychiatric illness.

Before mental health, "mental hygiene" was a term used in the 19th and 20th centuries to refer to the impact that mental processes have on overall health.

A mental hygiene movement had formed in the United States in 1908. Its goal was to advocate for people who were "mentally sick," or people who had psychiatric conditions, in a more humane way as historically, people with mental illnesses were abused, neglected, and lacked adequate care.

Though stigma surrounding mental illness still exists, more and more people have realized the importance of receiving treatment—like psychotherapy—for maintenance of their mental well-being, regardless of whether they have a mental illness.

Additionally, an abundance of research has found that positive mental health is linked with improved quality of life, including better productivity, closer social connections, higher educational achievement, and improved relationships.

Characteristics

Mental health refers not only to emotional well-being but also to how people think and behave. There are a number of different factors that have been found to influence mental health.

Life Satisfaction

A person's ability to enjoy life is frequently used as an indicator of mental health and wellness. It is often defined as the degree to which a person enjoys the most important aspects of their life. 

Some factors that have been found to play an important role in life satisfaction include the absence of feeling ill, good relationships, a sense of belonging, being active in work and leisure, a sense of achievement and pride, positive self-perceptions, a sense of autonomy, and feelings of hope.

Resilience

The ability to bounce back from adversity has been referred to as resilience. People who are resilient also tend to have a positive view of their ability to cope with challenges and seek out social support when they need it. Those who are more resilient are better able to not only cope with stress but to thrive even in the face of it.

Support

Social support is important for positive mental health. Loneliness is linked with both physical and mental health issues including cardiovascular disease, depression, memory problems, drug misuse, alcohol misuse, and altered brain function.

Decreases in social support caused by life changes such as going to college, facing social adversity, changing jobs, or getting divorced can have a negative impact on mental health.

Fortunately, research suggests that it is not necessarily the number of supportive connections you have that it is the most important but rather the quality of these relationships. 

Flexibility

Having rigid expectations can sometimes create added stress. Emotional flexibility may be just as important as cognitive flexibility. Mentally healthy people experience a range of emotions and allow themselves to express these feelings. Some people shut off certain feelings, finding them to be unacceptable.

Lack of psychological flexibility has been linked to some types of psychopathology, while research suggests that increased flexibility is connected to better life balance and improved resilience.

Challenges to Mental Health

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that an estimated one in five U.S. adults experiences a mental health problem each year. There are a number of risk factors that can increase the likelihood that a person may experience poor mental health.

Discrimination

Being treated unfairly due to personal characteristics such as age, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity is linked with increased anxiety and depression.

Exposure to Trauma

Trauma is linked with anxiety, depression, changes in mood (increased anger and irritability), feelings of hopelessness, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Family History of Mental Illness

Research suggests that a variety of mental illnesses run in families such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder (MDD), and schizophrenia.

Low Income

Low income is linked with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Low income may also prevent someone from accessing necessary mental health services.

Medical Illness

Illnesses, particularly those that are chronic and force a person to adjust their lifestyle, can create psychological distress (especially depression).

Poor Access to Health Services

Access to health services is linked to positive long-term health outcomes. However, when people can't get access to the health care they need, their physical and mental health may suffer as a result.

Poor Self-Esteem

Having low self-esteem often means you don't believe you're worthy of being happy or having positive relationships. People with low self-esteem are at higher risk of developing substance use disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Poor Social Skills

Having poor social skills is linked with loneliness and increased stress levels, as well as worsened physical health.

Social Inequalities

Lacking access to goods and services in society based on personal characteristics like your age, gender, religion, race, disability, or another social category can increase the risk of depression.

Substance Use

Substance use is linked with high rates of anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Impact of Mental Health

The state of a person's mental health has a significant impact on their quality of life. Taking care of your mental health allows you to contribute to your community, cope with stress, have quality relationships, and maintain physical health.

Mental health can help you to work toward your full potential in all aspects of your life. Improved mental health is also linked with better physical health. Research has found that positive mental health can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Poor mental health, on the other hand, is linked with issues like increased stress, sleep problems, smoking, and substance use. If your mental health is suffering, you might feel overwhelmed more easily, have trouble maintaining relationships, and experience low self-esteem.

How to Stay Mentally Healthy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that some of the ways that you can promote and maintain mental health include the below. 

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise can reduce stress and even improve the symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression. It reduces the body's levels of stress hormones and elevates levels of endorphins, which promote mood regulation and feelings of well-being.

Your workout doesn't need to be strenuous either. Try taking a 20-minute walk and you might just notice the effect it has on clearing and relaxing your mind.

Adequate Sleep  

Not getting enough sleep can worsen mental health and cause mental distress, especially in people with existing mental health conditions. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends getting at least seven hours per night.

Mental health conditions can make it extra challenging to fulfill your sleep requirements, but there are ways you can improve your sleeping habits.

Try adhering to a consistent sleep schedule (going to bed and waking up at the same times each night), limiting distractions like using your phone before bed, and making sure you get some exercise during the day. Be sure to consult a healthcare provider if your lack of sleep is causing mental distress.

Help Others 

One study found that helping behavior and other kinds of social interactions were linked with reduced stress and even longer lifespans.

Try volunteering in your community or even lending a hand to people in your everyday life. Performing small acts of kindness can make you and the recipient of your generosity feel a boost in mood and well-being.

Learn Coping Skills

Learning healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress can go a long way in improving mental health.

Some productive coping mechanisms include getting emotional support from loved ones, finding humor in your everyday life, and taking action to better your situation. It's all about finding what works best for you.

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist works with patients to find the best coping skills for their unique circumstances.

Stay Connected to Others

Social interaction can reduce our stress levels, improve the symptoms of depression, and even benefit our physical health.

Research has found that social connection has positive impacts on health categories like cancer, weight management, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Having social interactions in a setting such as group therapy, for instance, might be especially helpful if you are coping with a specific mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or an eating disorder.

Keep a Positive Outlook

There are many health benefits to using optimism and positive thinking in your everyday life.

One study found that participants with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who practiced replacing thoughts of negative outcomes with thoughts of positive ones experienced less worry over time than participants who didn't imagine positive outcomes.

A Word From Verywell

There are many factors that influence mental health and overall well-being. Individual factors play an important part, but social, environmental, and financial circumstances can also either enhance or worsen mental health.

It is important to seek help if you are having difficulties. Talk to a doctor or mental health professional if you need help improving your mental health or addressing a psychological problem.

Was this page helpful?
29 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About mental health.

  2. World Health Organization. Mental health.

  3. Bertolote J. The roots of the concept of mental healthWorld Psychiatry. 2008;7(2):113-116. doi:10.1002/j.2051-5545.2008.tb00172.x

  4. Connell J, O'Cathain A, Brazier J. Measuring quality of life in mental health: Are we asking the right questions?Soc Sci Med. 2014;120:12–20. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.08.026

  5. Walker FR, Pfingst K, Carnevali L, Sgoifo A, Nalivaiko E. In the search for integrative biomarker of resilience to psychological stressNeurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017;74(Pt B):310-320. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.05.003

  6. Hämmig O. Health risks associated with social isolation in general and in young, middle and old age. PLoS One. 2019;14(7):e0219663. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219663

  7. Umberson D, Montez JK. Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policyJ Health Soc Behav. 2010;51 Suppl(Suppl):S54–S66. doi:10.1177/0022146510383501

  8. Kashdan TB, Rottenberg J. Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of healthClin Psychol Rev. 2010;30(7):865–878. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001

  9. National Alliance on Mental Health. Mental health by the numbers.

  10. World Health Organization. Risks to mental health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors.

  11. American Psychological Association. The impact of discrimination.

  12. Kleber RJ. Trauma and public mental health: A focused reviewFront Psychiatry. 2019;10:451. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00451

  13. National Institutes of Health. Common genetic factors found in 5 mental disorders.

  14. Patel V, Burns JK, Dhingra M, Tarver L, Kohrt BA, Lund C. Income inequality and depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanismsWorld Psychiatry. 2018;17(1):76-89. doi:10.1002/wps.20492

  15. National Institute of Mental Health. Chronic illness and mental health: Recognizing and treating depression.

  16. Coombs NC, Meriwether WE, Caringi J, Newcomer SR. Barriers to healthcare access among U.S. adults with mental health challenges: A population-based studySSM Popul Health. 2021;15:100847. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100847

  17. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Why self-esteem is important for mental health.

  18. Segrin C. Indirect effects of social skills on health through stress and loneliness. Health Communication. 2017;34(1):118-124. doi:10.1080/10410236.2017.1384434

  19. Yu, S. Uncovering the hidden impacts of inequality on mental health: A global studyTransl Psychiatry. 2018;8:98. doi:10.1038/s41398-018-0148-0

  20. Morris DH, Davis AK, Lauritsen KJ, et al. Substance use consequences, mental health problems, and readiness to change among Veterans seeking substance use treatmentJ Subst Abuse Treat. 2018;94:113-121. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2018.08.005

  21. National Library of Medicine. Mental health.

  22. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease and mental health disorders.

  23. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is mental health?.

  24. Harvard Health Publishing. Exercising to relax.

  25. Blackwelder A, Hoskins M, Huber L. Effect of inadequate sleep on frequent mental distress. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2021;18:200573. doi:10.5888/pcd18.200573

  26. Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortalityAm J Public Health. 2013;103(9):1649-1655. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300876

  27. Saxon L, Makhashvili N, Chikovani I, et al. Coping strategies and mental health outcomes of conflict-affected persons in the Republic of GeorgiaEpidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2017;26(3):276-286. doi:10.1017/S2045796016000019

  28. Martino J, Pegg J, Frates EP. The connection prescription: Using the power of social interactions and the deep desire for connectedness to empower health and wellnessAm J Lifestyle Med. 2015;11(6):466-475. doi:10.1177/1559827615608788

  29. Eagleson C, Hayes S, Mathews A, Perman G, Hirsch CR. The power of positive thinking: Pathological worry is reduced by thought replacement in generalized anxiety disorderBehav Res Ther. 2016;78:13-18. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2015.12.017

Additional Reading
  • Taylor, James, 1977. Secret O' Life Album: JT; Professional experience of 25 years as a practicing clinical psychologist.