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What is mental health?

Healthcare May 4, 2022 at 19:38

Mental health disorders are one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.

Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It is all about how people think, feel, and behave. People sometimes use the term “mental health” to mean the absence of a mental disorder.

Mental health can affect daily living, relationships, and physical health.

However, this link also works in the other direction. Factors in people’s lives, interpersonal connections, and physical factors can contribute to mental ill health.

Looking after mental health can preserve a person’s ability to enjoy life. Doing this involves balancing life activities, responsibilities, and efforts to achieve psychological resilience.

Stress, depression, and anxiety can all affect mental health and disrupt a person’s routine.

Although health professionals often use the term mental health, doctors recognize that many psychological disorders have physical roots.

This article explains what people mean by mental health and mental illness. We also describe the most common types of mental disorders, including their early signs and how to treat them.

What is mental health?

The WHO states that mental health is “more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.” Peak mental health is not only about managing active conditions but also looking after ongoing wellness and happiness.

It also emphasizes that preserving and restoring mental health is crucial individually and at a community and society level.

In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that almost 1 in 5 adults experience mental health problems each year.

In 2020, an estimated 14.2 million adultsTrusted Source in the U.S., or about 5.6%, had a serious psychological condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Risk factors for mental health conditions

Everyone is at some risk of developing a mental health disorder, regardless of age, sex, income, or ethnicity. In the U.S. and much of the developed world, mental disorders are one of the leading causes of disability.

Social and financial circumstances, adverse childhood experiences, biological factors, and underlying medical conditions can all shape a person’s mental health.

Many people with a mental health disorder have more than one condition at a time.

It is important to note that good mental health depends on a delicate balance of factors and that several elements may contribute to developing these disorders.

The following factors can contribute to mental health disruptions.

Continuous social and economic pressure

Having limited financial means or belonging to a marginalized or persecuted ethnic group can increase the risk of mental health disorders.

A 2015 Iranian studyTrusted Source describes several socioeconomic causes of mental health conditions, including poverty and living on the outskirts of a large city.

The researchers also described flexible (modifiable) and inflexible (nonmodifiable) factors that affect the availability and quality of mental health treatment for certain groups.

Modifiable factors for mental health disorders include:

  • socioeconomic conditions, such as whether work is available in the local area
  • occupation
  • a person’s level of social involvement
  • education
  • housing quality
  • gender

Nonmodifiable factors include:

  • gender
  • age
  • ethnicity
  • nationality

The researchers found that being female increased the risk of low mental health status by nearly 4 times. People with a “weak economic status” also scored highest for mental health conditions in this study.

Childhood adversity

Several studiesTrusted Source support that adverse childhood experiences such as child abuse, parental loss, parental separation, and parental illness significantly affect a growing child’s mental and physical health.

There are also associations between childhood abuse and other adverse events with various psychotic disorders. These experiences also make people vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Biological factors

The NIMH suggests that genetic family history can increase the likelihoodTrusted Source of mental health conditions as specific genes and gene variants put a person at higher risk.

However, many other factors contribute to the development of these disorders.

Having a gene associated with a mental health disorder does not guarantee that a condition will develop. Likewise, people without related genes or a family history of mental illness can still have mental health issues.

Chronic stress and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety may develop due to underlying physical health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, and chronic pain.

Types of mental health disorders

Specific mental disorders are grouped together due to features they have in common. Some types of mental illness are as follows:

  • anxiety disorders
  • mood disorders
  • schizophrenia disorders

Anxiety disorders

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness.

People with these conditions have severe fear or anxiety related to certain objects or situations. Most people with an anxiety disorder try to avoid exposure to whatever triggers their anxiety.

Below are some examples of anxiety disorders.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves excessive worry or fear that disrupts everyday living.

People may also experience physical symptoms, including:

  • restlessness
  • fatigue
  • poor concentration
  • tense muscles
  • interrupted sleep

A bout of anxiety symptoms does not necessarily need a specific trigger in people with GAD.

They may experience excessive anxiety when encountering everyday situations that do not pose a direct danger, such as chores or appointments. A person with GAD may sometimes feel anxiety with no trigger at all.

Find out more about GAD here.

Panic disorder

People with a panic disorder experience regular panic attacks involving sudden, overwhelming terror or a sense of imminent disaster and death.

Read more about panic attacks here.


There are different types of phobia:

  • Simple phobias: These may involve a disproportionate fear of specific objects, scenarios, or animals. A fear of spiders is a typical example.
  • Social phobia: Sometimes known as social anxiety, this is a fear of being subject to the judgment of others. People with social phobia often restrict their exposure to social environments.
  • Agoraphobia: This term refers to a fear of situations where getting away may be difficult, such as being in an elevator or a moving train. Many people misunderstand this phobia as the fear of being outside.

Phobias are deeply personal, and doctors do not know every type. There could be thousands of phobias, and what may seem unusual to one person can be a severe problem that dominates daily life for another.


People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have obsessions and compulsions. In other words, they experience constant, stressful thoughts and a powerful urge to perform repetitive acts, such as handwashing.


PTSD can occur after a person experiences or witnesses an intensely stressful or traumatic event. During this type of event, the person thinks that their life or other people’s lives are in danger. They may feel afraid or that they have no control over what is happening.

These sensations of trauma and fear may then contribute to PTSD.

Mood disorders

People may also refer to mood disorders as affective disorders or depressive disorders.

People with these conditions have significant mood changes, generally involving either mania, a period of high energy and joy, or depression. Examples of mood disorders include:

  • Major depression: An individual with major depression experiences a constant low mood and loses interest in activities and events that they previously enjoyed (anhedonia). They can feel prolonged periods of sadness or extreme sadness.
  • Bipolar disorder: A person with bipolar disorder experiences unusual changesTrusted Source in their mood, energy levels, levels of activity, and ability to continue with daily life. Periods of high mood are known as manic phases, while depressive phases bring on low mood. Read more about the different types of bipolar here.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): Reduced daylight during the fall, winter, and early spring months triggers this type of major depressionTrusted Source. It is most common in countries far from the equator.


Schizophrenia disorders

The term schizophrenia often refers to a spectrum of disorders characterized by psychotic features and other severe symptoms. These are highly complex conditions.

According to the NIMH, signs of schizophrenia typically develop between the ages of 16 and 30Trusted Source. The individual will have thoughts that appear fragmented and may also find it hard to process information.

Schizophrenia has negative and positive symptoms. Positive symptoms include delusions, thought disorders, and hallucinations, while withdrawal, lack of motivation, and a flat or inappropriate mood are examples of negative symptoms.

Early signs

No physical test or scan reliably indicates whether a person has developed a mental illness. However, people should look out for the following as possible signs of a mental health disorder:

  • withdrawing from friends, family, and colleagues
  • avoiding activities they would normally enjoy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • eating too much or too little
  • feeling hopeless
  • having consistently low energy
  • using mood-altering substances, including alcohol and nicotine, more frequently
  • displaying negative emotions
  • being confused
  • being unable to complete daily tasks, such as getting to work or cooking a meal
  • having persistent thoughts or memories that reappear regularly
  • thinking of causing physical harm to themselves or others
  • hearing voices
  • experiencing delusions


Diagnosing a mental health disorder requires a multi-step process. A doctor may begin by looking at a person’s medical history and performing a thorough physical exam to rule out physical conditions or issues that may be causing the symptoms.

No medical tests can diagnose mental disorders. However, doctors may order a series of laboratory tests such as imaging exams and bloodwork to screen for other possible underlying causes.

They will also do a psychological evaluation. This includes asking about a person’s symptoms, experiences, and how these have impacted their lives. Sometimes, the doctor may ask a person to fill out mental health questionnaires to get an idea about a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns.

Most mental health specialists use the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to make a diagnosis. This manual contains descriptions and specific criteria to qualify for a diagnosis.


There are various methods for managing mental health problems. Treatment is highly individual, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Some strategies or treatments are more successful in combination with others. A person with a chronic mental disorder may choose different options at various stages in their life.

The individual needs to work closely with a doctor who can help them identify their needs and provide suitable treatment.

Below are some treatment options for people with mental ill health.

Psychotherapy, or talking therapies

This type of treatment takes a psychological approach to treating mental illness. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy are examples.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and some primary care physicians carry out this treatment.

It can help people understand the root of their mental illness and start to work on more healthful thought patterns that support everyday living and reduce the risk of isolation and self-harm.

Read more about psychotherapy here.


Some people take prescribed medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anxiolytic drugs.

Although these cannot cure mental disorders, some medications can improve symptoms and help a person resume social interaction and a routine while working on their mental health.

Some of these medications boost the body’s absorption of feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin, from the brain. Other drugs either boost the overall levels of these chemicals or prevent their degradation or destruction.

Find out more about antidepressant medications here.


A person coping with mental health difficulties may need to change their lifestyle to facilitate wellness.

Such changes can include reducing alcohol intake, sleeping more, and eating a balanced, nutritious diet. People may need to take time away from work or resolve issues with personal relationships that may be causing damage to their mental health.

People with conditions such as anxiety or depressive disorder may benefit from relaxation techniques, which include deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness.

Having a support network, whether via self-help groups or close friends and family, can also be essential to recovery from mental illness.

Myths vs. facts about mental health

There are several commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about mental health. Here are some examples.

Myth: A person with a mental health condition has low intelligence.

Fact: Mental illnesses can affect anybody regardless of intelligence, income, or social status.

Myth: Teenagers do not have mental health issues. They just have mood swings due to their fluctuating hormones.

Fact: While it is true that teenagers often have mood swings, it does not mean that they cannot have mental health issues. Half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14.

Myth: People with mental health illnesses are dangerous, violent, and unpredictable.

Fact: Many people are quick to label people doing mass violence and crime as “mentally ill.” However, crimes committed by people with serious mental health disorders only make up 5% of all violent crimes.

Myth: Psychiatric medications are harmful.

Fact: Mental illnesses, like other health conditions, are real illnesses. These medications may be necessary to help them function normally, ease their symptoms, and improve their quality of life. They are not harmful or an “excuse” for people to avoid dealing with their problems.

Myth: People with bipolar disorder are moody.

Fact: Bipolar cycles last from weeks to months and do not change as fast as people’s moods often do.

Myth: A person with a mental health condition is weak. Such conditions would not affect strong people.

Fact: Having a mental health condition is beyond choice or willpower. Anyone can have a mental health condition.

Myth: Bad parenting causes adolescents to have mental health conditions.

Fact: Many adverse experiences and factors may influence a person’s mental health and well-being. Adolescents’ relationships with their parents and family are just one factor. A person raised in supportive and loving homes and those raised in homes maintained by caregivers who need mental support can experience mental health difficulties equally.

Myth: People with mental health needs cannot keep and perform well in a job.

Fact: People with mental health conditions can perform well in a jobTrusted Source, especially in a supportive workplace that supports and promotes mental health.

Read more mental health myths here.

How to maintain your mental health

Practicing self-care can help improve a person’s mental health by reducing a person’s risk of illness, increasing energy levels, and managing stress. The NIMH offers several tipsTrusted Source to help a person begin with their self-care routine:

  • Regular exercise: Exercising for 45 minutes, three to five times a week, can significantlyTrusted Source improve mental health.
  • Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated: Eating a nourishing, balanced diet and staying hydrated can give a constant supply of energy throughout the day.
  • Aim for good-quality sleep: A 2021 review of multiple studies found that more significant improvements in sleep quality led to greater improvements in a person’s mental health.
  • Perform relaxing activities: Breathing exercises, meditation, wellness apps, and journaling can help reduce stress and improve overall health and well-being.
  • Practice gratefulness: People can practice mindfulness and gratitude by actively identifying things they are grateful for daily.
  • Challenge negative thoughts: A person can practice positivity by becoming aware of their negative and unhelpful thoughts and challenging them.
  • Look for positive social interactions: Connecting and maintaining meaningful connections and relationships reduces stress and can also be a source of support and practical help in times of need.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, hard-of-hearing people can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.


While mental health disorders are common, they vary in severity. Most people can manage their symptoms and lead full lives with the proper treatment and access to support.

For others, recovery may not look like going back to their lives before the mental health disorder but learning new ways to cope and gaining more control over their lives.

The prevalence of mental disorders tends to peak in people ages 18–25Trusted Source, but drops significantly in people aged 50 and over.

Having a mental health problem, especially depression, is strongly associated with severe chronic health conditions such as diabetes, stroke, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease.


The term mental health refers to a person’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It affects how people react to stressors, engage with others, and make choices.

According to the WHO peak mental health is more than just the absence of mental health problems. It is the ability to manage existing conditions and stressors while maintaining ongoing wellness and happiness.

Factors such as stress, depression, and anxiety can all negatively affect mental health and disrupt a person’s routine.