Mental health is a complex mix of emotional, psychological, and social factors. To have good mental health is to experience well-being in all of these areas. This area of health is often overlooked and considered less important than physical health, but it affects all areas of a person’s life from coping with challenges to relationships and even physical health.
Many people will struggle with mental illnesses or mental health conditions, but even those who are never diagnosed need to understand what it means to have good mental health. Conditions that affect mental health include common mood disorders like anxiety, behavioral disorders, like ADHD, and more serious conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. A better understanding of mental health can help anyone make better choices, seek help when needed, and learn how to cope with mental illness.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health is something everyone has, just like physical health. Also like physical health, it can range from poor to excellent. Good mental health means being in a state of emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It means being able to cope with normal daily challenges and stresses, being able to reach one’s own potential, and being capable of contributing to relationships and communities.
Mental illness is not the same as mental health, although it can impact it. A mental illness is a diagnosable condition or disorder. Mental illnesses include disordered thinking, mood, behavior or some combination of two or all three. The disordered factors impair a person’s ability to function normally. As an example, someone struggling with depression lives with an altered mood and may feel so hopeless and sad that getting out of bed is a challenge and some days may even be impossible.
Having good mental health comes more easily to some people than to others. It is possible for someone with a mental illness to have good mental health, if it is treated and controlled. Being in good health means being emotionally, socially, and psychologically well. Someone who has good mental health has several characteristics:
- Satisfaction with life in general.
- Peaceful, happy, and cheerful most of the time.
- Willingness to try new things.
- Generally optimistic.
- Self-directed with good control over one’s life.
- Sense of community.
- Socially accepted.
- Contributions to society and community.
Some aspects of good mental health may be out of a person’s control, but everyone can work toward better mental health through lifestyle changes, daily choices, medical diagnosis and treatment, therapy, building relationships, finding meaningful work, and other factors.
Mental illnesses are real, psychological, medical conditions that are treatable. They may prevent someone from reaching optimal mental health, but with treatment and management it is possible to control a mental health condition and to experience well-being in spite of it. For many people it is difficult to recognize signs of mental health problems. It is easier to see them in someone else. This is why it is important for all people to be aware of what mental health disorders look like and to be willing to try to help loved ones who show these signs. Warning signs of a mental illness may include:
- Unusual changes in behaviors, or acting out of character.
- Changes in sleeping.
- Withdrawing from people and normal activities.
- Engaging in risky behaviors.
- Low energy.
- Unexplained pains and other physical symptoms.
- Hearing or seeing things that are not really there.
- Being unable to complete normal daily tasks.
- Sliding performance at work or school.
- Feelings of numbness, hopelessness, confusion, irritability, or other unusual emotions that are not typical.
- Persistent thoughts or memories that just won’t go away.
The most common type of mental health illness is anxiety. Anxiety disorders are characterized by an unusual level of anxiety, fear, and stress. These feelings are normal to have and by themselves do not indicate a mental health issue, but when they are overwhelming, frequent, persistent, and interrupt the ability to function, these feelings may constitute a diagnosable anxiety disorder. There are several disorders that fit into this category.
Generalized anxiety disorder causes a person to feel anxious about most things, while social anxiety is specific to social settings. Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which can feel very physical with a racing heartbeat, dizziness, and chest pains. Phobias are extreme and specific fears. Post-traumatic stress disorder is triggered by traumatic experiences and causes flashbacks and nightmares. Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by persistent, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Anxiety disorders are very common and they can be managed with anti-anxiety medications and therapy.
Depression, like anxiety disorders, is a mood disorder. Also called major depression or major depressive disorder, it causes feelings of extreme sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and shame. Depression is more than just the occasional, normal feelings of sadness. It persists, is extreme, and can interfere with a person’s ability to live a normal life. Depression may be triggered by an event, like a death, or it may be specific to a period in life, such as postpartum depression, which many women experience after pregnancy. As with anxiety, depression can be managed and treated with antidepressant medications and therapy.
Bipolar disorder is also a mood disorder. It is characterized by cycles that swing between depression and mania. The depression phase may be very similar to major depression. During mania a person experiences what seems to be a very good mood, but it can be problematic. A manic episode may include difficulty sleeping, irritability, talking and moving very fast, trying to do more than is really possible, and even feelings of immortality. Risky behaviors are common during mania and can lead to negative consequences. Bipolar disorder can be treated with medications and therapy.
Anxiety and depression are mood disorders, characterized by how the condition changes a person’s mood. Another category of mental illness is personality disorders. These are mental illnesses that affect a person’s personality and include problematic patterns of thought and behaviors. A major consequence of having a personality disorder is troubled relationships, but coping with any ordinary aspect of life, such as work, can be more difficult with this kind of mental health issue.
Personality disorders may range from mild to severe and debilitating. People with these conditions have a hard time realizing that anything is wrong. In their minds, the way they think and act seems normal and reasonable. When they experience problems as a result of their abnormal thoughts and behaviors, they tend to blame others. Some examples of personality disorders include borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and delusional disorders. Therapy is most helpful for people with these disorders who are willing to seek treatment. Medications may or may not be useful.
The most severe mental illnesses are termed psychotic disorders. These cause abnormal thought patterns, but also changes in perception that can cause someone to experience hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. A psychotic disorder can cause a person to lose touch with reality. A hallucination means seeing or hearing something, or even feeling a sensation, that isn’t real. Delusions and paranoia are false beliefs. For example, someone with a psychosis might think his family is out to get him or is trying to hurt him.
Some other mental health conditions can lead to psychosis. During manic phases of bipolar disorder, a person may suffer delusions. Psychosis may also be triggered by drug use or even the presence of a brain tumor. Schizophrenia is also a type of psychotic disorder that causes a person to experience hallucinations and delusions, difficulty thinking or concentrating, and trouble expressing emotions normally. Medications called antipsychotics are important for controlling these kinds of conditions. Therapy may help, but is rarely enough to keep symptoms under control.
Behavioral disorders are not necessarily categorized with mental illnesses, but they do affect mental health and how a person relates to others and functions in daily life. The most common of these is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is most often diagnosed in childhood, but can persist into adulthood. ADHD is characterized by an inability to concentrate for long periods of time, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Also diagnosed in childhood are conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Children with behavioral disorders that are not controlled by treatment or interventions often struggle in school. They may struggle to perform academically, but they also tend to get in trouble with teachers and other authority figures, and have a hard time getting along with peers and forming normal relationships with friends and classmates. Treatment for these disorders is important for helping a child to function normally and often includes medications. The best way to manage them, though, is to also include behavioral therapy and educational and social interventions.
Eating disorders are characterized by obsessive thoughts about food, weight, and body image as well as abnormal behaviors. Anorexia is a condition in which a person tries to eat as little as possible to lose weight. No matter how thin someone with anorexia gets, he or she will still see someone in the mirror that is too heavy. Bulimia is characterized by cycles of binging on food and then intense shame followed by purging. Purging may mean vomiting, but could also be fasting, exercising, or using laxatives. Eating disorders are extremely dangerous and can even be fatal if not treated.
A very real possible consequence of poor mental health or untreated mental illness is suicide. Depression in particular can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. This may indicate that mental illness is too often not recognized and it is undertreated. Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but more men actually die from suicide. Suicide is preventable, but changing the facts requires that people are more aware of the problem and the signs of suicidal thinking, and are willing to reach out and offer help and ask for help.
Habits for Good Mental Health
Anyone can take steps to enjoy better mental health. It just involves awareness and a willingness to make positive changes. Some of the most important things you can do to enjoy better mental health are connecting socially with other people, getting enough sleep every night, eating a healthful diet, getting adequate exercise, using relaxation techniques to manage stress, and engaging in activities that bring meaning into your life.
These things will help you enjoy better overall mental, emotional, and social well-being, but it is also important to be aware of mental illness. Knowing the warning signs will help you to recognize that something is wrong so that you can reach out to ask for help. Untreated mental illness is dangerous and limits your life. If you are struggling, see your doctor for a referral and to get a diagnosis and treatment.
Medications are important for the treatment of many mental illnesses, but they also carry risks. Some of the most commonly used drugs for mental illness are antidepressants. These include Celexa, Cymbalta, Effexor, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and others. Antidepressants work by changing levels of chemicals in the brain to stabilize mood. They can be very useful, but also potentially dangerous. All of these drugs carry black box warnings that they can increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young people, for instance. They are also difficult to stop taking and can cause serious and harmful withdrawal.
Another category of mental health drugs are antipsychotics, like Risperdal, Invega, Abilify, and Zyprexa. Antipsychotics have been known to cause fatalities in older patients with dementia symptoms, Risperdal has been linked to breast growth in boys, and Zyprexa has been linked with birth defects when used by pregnant women. Abilify has caused very unusual compulsive behaviors in some people, most often compulsive gambling.
Medications used to treat anxiety, like Valium and Xanax are among the most popular drugs because anxiety disorder is so common. They are safe for most people, but can cause dependency, tolerance, withdrawal, and very serious interactions with alcohol. Children with ADHD are often medicated. Adderall is a common drug for ADHD and it has been linked with sudden death, misuse, and addiction.
Mental health is too often overlooked in favor of a focus on physical health, but it can be just as important. The ability to live life well, to be happy and fulfilled, depends on both good physical and good mental health. By learning more about mental health, how mental illnesses are treated, and some of the problems associated with medications, you can make better, more informed choices for good mental health.