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What is mental health? Definition, disorders, and treatment

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What Is Mental Health?

Mental health refers to your psychological, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It pertains to your ability to cope with stress and integrate both the joys and struggles of life into your sense of self. Many factors affect your mental health, including your genetics, biochemistry, and life experiences.

If you struggle with your mental health, you may have a mental health disorder, also known as a mental illness. One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Common Mental Health Terms

  • Mental health disorder: Affects the way you think, feel, and behave; may be caused by genetics, biochemistry, stress, trauma, or some combination of factors
  • Mental illness: Another term for mental health disorder
  • Psychiatrist: A medical doctor who can prescribe medication for mental illness
  • Psychotherapy: Treatment for mental illness based on psychological methods instead of medication; also known as talk therapy; commonly referred to by the general public as therapy or counseling
  • Therapist: A generic term for someone trained to help those struggling with mental illness; also known as a counselor, mental health professional, or clinician

What Causes Mental Illness?

A Brief History of Mental Health

The way we talk about mental health has changed dramatically, even in recent years. However, that doesn’t mean that mental health is a novel idea or that mental illness is a fabricated concept. Mental health is real, and mental illness has been acknowledged and treated by various cultures throughout history in different ways.

Some cultures relied on the supernatural to explain mental health disorders, such as demon possession or the wrath of angry gods. Others incorrectly diagnosed unrelated or imagined physical problems as the root cause of mental illness. One memorable example is the Greek theory that the cause of “hysteria” in women was a detached, moving uterus.

Although these frameworks and theories were incorrect, they were trying to describe the physical, emotional, and social realities of mental illness. Today, we know that the causes of mental health disorders are often a mix of biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders

  • Genetics: If you have a history of mental illness in your family, you are at a greater risk of developing a mental health disorder.
  • Biochemistry: The balance of chemicals in your brain may affect your likelihood for certain mental illnesses.
  • Stress: Unmanaged stress, particularly that which is chronic or cumulative, can lead to an increased risk for mental illness.
  • Trauma: Trauma can lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can increase your likelihood for developing other mental health disorders.

Societal Factors and Mental Illness

Societies that privilege and empower certain groups over others create circumstances that increase the likelihood of mental illness among disadvantaged groups. In the United States, unequal treatment continues to be a reality for individuals due to their race, gender, sexuality, ability, and/or socioeconomic class.

These individuals are faced with the ongoing reality of discrimination and oppression, which can have real effects and consequences for every aspect of health, including mental health. You can learn more about how various identities intersect with mental illness and mental health by reading the following articles:

● Race, Identity & Mental Health: The Psychology of Racism
● LGBTQIA+ Communities and Mental Health: Finding Help
● Disabilities & Mental Health
● Gender & Mental Health
● Socioeconomic Class & Mental Health

How to Find Mental Health Care

Finding a Therapist

One of the best things you can do for your mental health is to find a therapist. There are many factors that you should consider when choosing a therapist, such as their:

  • Credentials
  • Treatment methods
  • Specialties
  • Payment options
  • Treatment setting (online or in-person)

You’ll also want to find a therapist you can trust. This is a much more subjective evaluation that takes into account your own history with therapy, as well as any preferences you may have for race, gender, sexuality, or faith background.

Ready to find a therapist? We can help. Click here to find a therapist near you.

Perform a Mental Health Check-In

It’s important to check in regularly with your mental health. This involves checking for warning signs of mental illness, as well as practicing habits to strengthen your mental health.

Mental Health Warning Signs Checklist

Feeling off lately? Ask yourself if you’ve experienced any of the following warning signs of mental illness:

  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Severe mood swings
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Flashbacks to traumatic events
  • Fatigue or insomnia
  • Withdrawing from people or activities that once brought you joy
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Persistent low mood you can’t seem to shake

If you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms, consider seeking professional treatment by finding a therapist.

11 Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Mental Health

Professional help is often necessary to treat mental illness and experience lasting improvement. However, at-home strategies can be helpful alongside professional treatment. You can strengthen your mental health at home by:

  1. Practicing self-care
  2. Journaling
  3. Walking
  4. Meditating
  5. Practicing mindfulness
  6. Talking to a friend, family member, or loved one
  7. Deep breathing
  8. Exercising
  9. Reading a book
  10. Spending time outdoors
  11. Engaging in relaxing hobbies, such as baking, crafting, gardening, or knitting

Although these at-home strategies can help you better manage stress and cope with difficult situations when they do arise, please keep in mind that they are not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other forms of mental health care. The best way to strengthen your mental health is to follow the treatment plan set for you by a mental health professional.

Get Help Now

If you are having a mental health crisis, help is available now. Call or text one of the following helplines:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Is Mental Health Important?

Your mental health is important in the same way that your physical health is important. When you’re sick or injured, you see a health professional for diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, mental health problems should be diagnosed and treated by mental health professionals.

Physical illnesses and injuries that are left untreated can worsen and even become life-threatening. In the same way, untreated mental illness can worsen and put your health and safety at risk. One study found that 90% of people who die by suicide showed symptoms of a mental health disorder prior to their death.

With professional mental health treatment, you can learn healthy strategies to strengthen your mental health, manage symptoms with medication, and/or receive support from others with similar struggles. You are not alone. Help is available now.

How Does Mental Health Affect Physical Health?

Your physical health and your mental health are intertwined. Your brain is part of your body, and your body communicates with your brain to help you function.

Often, the early warning signs of mental illness manifest in physical ways. Common physical signs of potential mental illness include:

The relationship between physical health and mental health goes both ways. Studies have shown that simple exercise can have a marked effect on your mental health. Even low-impact activities like walking or gardening can reduce anxiety and depression.

However, it’s important to keep physical exercise in its proper context. Although it can help alleviate some symptoms, it cannot cure mental illness on its own.

What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Healthy?

Being mentally healthy looks different for everyone, just like physical health can look different for different bodies. In general, though, being mentally healthy means you’re able to think, feel, and act in ways that do not harm or interfere with your physical, emotional, social, or psychological well-being.

There is no perfect, ideal form of mental health you can achieve. A mental health professional can help you determine which treatments can give you the best possible outcomes for your mental health.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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