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What is mental health?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

An older man sits in the curve of a tree outside happy and opening a book to read

“Mental health” refers to your psychological, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It relates to your ability to cope with stress, handle challenges, and incorporate joy into your life. Many factors affect your mental health, including genetics, biochemistry, and life experiences.

Common mental health terms

If you struggle with your mental health, you may have a mental health disorder, also called a “mental illness.” This is very common. One in five adults in the US experiences mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.1

The following terms are often used when discussing mental health and mental illness:

  • Mental health disorders affect the way you think, feel, and behave. They may be caused by genetics, biochemistry, stress, trauma, or some combination of factors. Other terms for “mental health disorder” include “mental illness,” “psychiatric disorder,” “psychiatric illness,” and “psychological disorder.”
  • Psychotherapy is a form of treatment for mental illness. It is performed by a trained professional and focuses on communication rather than medication. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy, counseling, or therapy.
  • Therapist is a generic term for someone trained to help people with mental illness. This term may apply to counselors, psychologists, clinicians, or other mental health professionals.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental, behavioral, and personality disorders. Unlike therapists, they can prescribe medication for mental illness.

What does it mean to be mentally healthy?

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

Mental health doesn’t have a finish line—there’s no ideal form a person can achieve. Maintaining your mental health is a lifelong journey that’s likely to have many highs and lows. When you do struggle with your mental health, working with a therapist can help.

Why is mental health important?

When physical illnesses and injuries are left untreated, they can worsen and even become life-threatening. In the same way, untreated mental illness can put your health and safety at risk. One study found that more than 90% of people who die by suicide had a mental health disorder prior to their death.2

When you’re sick or injured, you see a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, mental health concerns should be diagnosed and treated by mental health professionals. With professional treatment, you can learn healthy coping strategies, manage your symptoms, and receive support from others. You are not alone.

If you’re in crisis, help is available 24/7: Call or text the free, confidential 988 Lifeline at 988.

A brief history of mental health

The way we talk about mental health has changed dramatically, especially in recent years. But even though they’re discussed more openly now, mental health and mental illnesses are not new ideas. Mental health is real, and mental illness has been acknowledged and treated by various cultures throughout history.

How we recognize and treat mental health has evolved a great deal over time. In the past, some cultures believed that mental health disorders were the result of supernatural causes, such as demon possession.3 Others have incorrectly diagnosed unrelated or imaginary physical problems as the root cause of mental illness. One well-known example is the ancient Greek theory that “hysteria” in a woman was caused by a detached uterus that wandered around the body.4

While these frameworks and theories weren’t medically accurate, they used the knowledge available at the time in trying to describe the physical, emotional, and social realities of mental illness. Today, we know that mental health disorders are the result of biology, environment, and other risk factors.

Risk factors for mental health disorders

  • Genetics: If you have a family history of mental illness, you’re at a greater risk of developing a mental health disorder yourself.
  • Biochemistry: The balance of chemicals unique to your brain may affect your likelihood for certain mental illnesses.
  • Stress: Unmanaged stress, especially if it’s chronic or builds up over time, can lead to greater risk.
  • Trauma: Trauma can cause posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and increase your likelihood of developing other mental health disorders.

Societal privilege and mental illness

When societies grant more power to certain groups than others, they create circumstances that increase the likelihood of mental illness among marginalized people.

Throughout history and into the modern day, people have been treated inequitably due to their race, gender, sexuality, physical ability, socioeconomic class, and other factors. The ongoing reality of discrimination and oppression can have serious consequences for every aspect of someone’s health, including their mental health.

How does mental health affect physical health?

Your physical, mental, and emotional health are intertwined. Because of this, early warning signs of mental illness often present in physical ways, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Decreased sex drive

The relationship between physical health and mental health goes both ways. If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s important to take care of your body in addition to your mind. Studies have shown that simple exercises can have a marked effect on your mental health.5 Even low-impact activities like walking or gardening can reduce anxiety and depression.6

However, it’s important to remember that exercise is only one part of a well-rounded treatment plan. Although it can help lessen some symptoms, exercise alone can’t treat or cure a mental illness.

How to care for your mental health

Find a therapist

Working with a therapist can make a huge difference for your mental health. When choosing a provider, be sure to consider their:

As you look for a therapist you can trust, it helps to keep your unique history and life experiences in mind. For example, you may prefer to see a therapist who shares your race, gender, sexuality, or faith background—but the most important factor of all is to find someone you feel comfortable talking to.

Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

Check in with yourself

It’s important to check in regularly with yourself and keep an eye out for warning signs of mental health concerns. Take notice of any of these symptoms:

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

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, consider seeking professional treatment.

Strengthen your mental health at home

Professional help is often necessary to treat mental illness and help you find lasting improvement. There are also at-home strategies you can try for additional support.

  • Practicing self-care
  • Journaling
  • Walking
  • Meditating
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Talking to a loved one
  • Deep breathing
  • Exercising
  • Practicing yoga
  • Reading
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Engaging in relaxing hobbies like crafting, gardening, or knitting

These strategies can help you manage stress and cope with difficult situations, but keep in mind that they aren’t a substitute for therapy or medication. The best way to strengthen your mental health is to follow the treatment plan a mental health professional sets for you.

Get help now

If you’re in crisis, help is available now. Contact one of the following helplines anytime for free, confidential support:

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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