What is Mental Health
The question ‘what is mental health?’ has been the subject of much debate over many years. As yet there is no definition of ‘mental health’ that is universally agreed. In the context of improving mental health in Wales, the All Wales Mental Health Promotion Network is adopting the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly Government.
This starts with an holistic understanding of ‘health’, which has been defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as:
“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”¹
From this, we can understand that mental health is
However, the term ‘mental health’ has long been used interchangeably with, or as a euphemism for, ‘mental illness’. It is important that this is challenged, so that ‘mental health and wellbeing’ is valued as a desirable quality in its own right, and as more than the absence of symptoms of mental illness.³
Promoting mental health
From this perspective, it becomes clear that ‘mental health promotion’ should focus on actions that make people ‘mentally healthy’.
The extent to which an individual or a population is ‘mentally healthy’ is constantly changing. It will respond to the circumstances confronting an individual or community such as employment status, quality of housing, access to leisure and a sense of security.
Given the wide range of factors that can affect mental health, improvements to the social, environmental and economic circumstances of people’s lives are essential if they are not to experience poor mental health as an understandable consequence of their living conditions.4 Individual mental health will also vary in accordance with an individual’s ability to deal with these factors. This is often termed ‘resilience’, and building individual resilience (for example, through promoting self esteem, or by providing social support) is key part of promoting mental health.
However, it has been argued that ‘one to one intervention is hopeless … it’s humane, it’s kind’, but it’s hopeless … because of the unbridgeable gap between the large numbers in need and the small numbers of helpers’.5 Therefore effective mental health promotion requires an ‘ecological’ approach that sees ‘people as developing persons living in a context within an immediate and wider environment’6, and addresses these wider determinants of mental health.
Mental health promotion actions need to address issues both within individuals (influencing their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours) and within the wide range of social, environmental and cultural conditions in which these attitudes and behaviours occur.
¹Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June - 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
²World Health Organization (2005), Promoting Mental Health: Concepts, Emerging Evidence, Practice, WHO Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Collaboration with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and The University of Melbourne
³Welsh Assembly Government (2006), Mental Health Promotion Action Plan for Wales: Consultation Document, Cardiff, Welsh Assembly Government
4 Wilkinson R (1996), Unhealthy Societies: Afflictions of Inequality. London, Routledge
5 Albee G W (1992), Keynote speech in DR Trent and C Reed (eds), Promotion of Mental Health, Vol 2, Aldershot, Avebury
6 Dodd C & Leob D (1994), Mental Health: A Way of Working, in DR Trent and C Reed (eds), Promotion of Mental Health, Vol 2, Aldershot, Avebury
Last updated: 02/08/2010