How Mental Health and Illness Should Be Defined


Nowadays, due to advancements in medical science and the awareness of new problems that it creates, mental health and illness are receiving more attention than ever. Old inhumane methods such as forced confinement of those diagnosed with mental disorders are condemned and phased out, and new, rehabilitation-oriented approaches take their place. Moreover, patients who previously would have their issues undiagnosed and receive no help, as a result, are now easier to identify. With that said, advancements in science have also led to a considerable amount of controversy regarding the definitions of the two terms above.

Mental health can no longer be seen as the simple absence of mental disorders, and those, in turn, may encompass too broad a category of issues, not all of them pathological. This essay will review the debate using scholarly sources and elaborate on the opinion the author has formed by doing so.

Mental Health

Traditionally, mental health has been defined as physical health, where the absence of illness and infirmities typically means that the body can function at full capacity. From there, a variety of possible configurations are possible that are all considered healthy, but the performance of the individuals in performing daily tasks will vary based on their degree of physical fitness. However, it is much more challenging to measure mental performance due to the absence of any potential objective indicators.

Many scholars have attempted to address this issue, modifying the definition of mental health to instead encompass “the presence of positive states of human capacities and functioning in thinking, feeling, and behavior” (Scheid & Brown, 2010). Under this theory, a human is mentally healthy when they experience positive feelings, put forward and achieve personal goals, and are well-integrated into society.

The integration of these two paradigms is among the more recent developments in mental health science. Previously, theorists tended to hold that one of the two definitions is an extension of another that results from it and, therefore, cannot affect it (Scheid & Brown, 2010). As such, they would posit that by curing mental illness, it would be possible to reintegrate patients into society, or that, with adequate social support, mental illness would diminish and disappear without the need for treatment. However, recent developments suggest that, while there may some relationship between the two paradigms, they also demonstrate a considerable degree of independence, as will be elaborated on later. Hence, the World Health Organization (2003) lists both approaches to mental health in its definition. Theoretically, this approach appears to be sound, as it integrates both perspectives while preventing the excesses of each one.

Mental Illness

When considering mental illness, it is not difficult to provide examples, such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, or depression. They have been popularized through cultural media, and even most non-specialists will typically recognize the names. However, providing a unified description of mental illness is still challenging because of the diversity of symptoms demonstrated. It is a deviation from normality, which itself is resistant to definition.

At the same time, many such deviations are not recognized as mental illnesses but rather as personal quirks. Kumar (2020) provides the suggestion that a universal definition of mental illness is not possible because it is linked to societal norms, taboos, and beliefs, which vary both over time and across cultures. As such, it may be described as a state of mind that prevents the person from being a fully functioning member of their society, though this alignment itself is challenging to measure.

However, this definition creates a problem because of its relationship with current approaches to the treatment of mental illness. As Maj (2007) points out, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is an extremely influential publication in the field of psychiatry, deliberately excludes context from its diagnostic process, attempting to provide a purified definition. In doing so, it may be forcing the norms of a particular culture on all others, mistakenly considering these standards to be objective and universal. As a result, Maj (2007) warns, reactions to events that are not necessarily problematic, such as grief at a loss, may be misinterpreted as mental disorders and treated unnecessarily.

Moreover, some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, are incurable, and rather than their elimination, people with them should focus on learning to live with them (Champagne, 2012). Improved, more relevant descriptions of mental illness are required that can more reliably differentiate individuals who have pathological problems and need help from those who do not require help.

The Intersection Between the Concepts

Considering the definition of mental illness provided in this paper, it is self-evident that it harms one’s mental health. Conditions that reduce one’s ability to be a fully functioning member of society and also lead them to potentially self-damaging behaviors directly and negatively affect their well-being. Moreover, individuals that are otherwise healthy and capable of leading a productive and enjoyable life but develop a mental illness for some reason may be impaired in all of their activities as a result. Hence, the definition of mental health incorporates the absence of mental illness. If it is present, it is a significant obstacle to one’s self-fulfillment and has to be treated before it results in other problems. With that said, while the elimination of mental illness is a prerequisite for mental health, it alone is not sufficient for achieving it.

Studies into mental health as a two-factor construct that only partially depends on the absence of mental illness have been developing rapidly in recent decades. Their primary aim is to determine the extent of the latter’s influence on the former compared to the other factors. Westerhof and Keyes (2010) find that younger people are more prone to mental illness than older ones, but the three determinants of mental health do not appear to correlate with this tendency, with emotional well-being improving, psychological well-being declining, and social well-being staying mostly stable. As such, while mental illness may affect mental health, it does not necessarily appear to have an overwhelming influence.

Sources of Understanding

A review of the evidence has demonstrated the fundamental dilemma at the center of both mental health and mental illness. There are no sources on which one can rely to provide a comprehensive and accurate definition of either concept, more so than is standard in science.

Sources that try to offer such a description, such as the DSM, are subject to bias that may be causing harm (Maj, 2007). Additionally, if mental illness is culturally determined, then no single source can encompass the entire spectrum across the world. At the same time, relying on one’s understanding when considering mental health and illness can also be dangerous and lead to severe misconceptions. The inhumane treatment practices likely resulted from such approaches, people’s misconceptions being reinforced with anecdotal evidence and propagated as factual.

Ultimately, precise and well-structured scientific research is essential to the successful promotion of mental health across the population. Improved theories are required to understand it better and differentiate between normal reactions to events and legitimate pathologies. With that said, a better mechanism may be required for summarizing the research and determining the current consensus in the field. Organizations such as the WHO and the APA are subject to considerable organizational inertia that will nearly always keep them lagging behind the latest developments. Ultimately, an individual trying to understand the current state of mental health and illness research will likely have to analyze it directly, reading through recent articles and summarizing their findings and the debates they create. Until the field settles, there appear to be few to no alternatives to doing so for proper understanding to be achieved.


The advancements in the understanding of mental health and illness have unearthed significant issues in how both of these concepts are understood. The former is now considered a broader concept than before, as it is differentiated substantially from physical health but also challenging to measure. The latter has been studied in more detail, and more effective rehabilitation-focused treatment methods have been developed. With that said, the current definitions of mental illness may be too broad, leading to overtreatment. Moreover, the effects of mental illness on mental health may currently be overstated, having a limited effect in the long term, especially if addressed appropriately. Overall, further research is required, and to understand the landscape, one will need to monitor and analyze the latest developments instead of relying on guidelines by large organizations.


Champagne, N. J. (2012). My experience with mental illness and addiction. HealthyPlace. Web.

Kumar, R. (2020). Essentials of psychiatry and mental health nursing. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Maj, M. (2007). Are we able to differentiate between true mental disorders and homeostatic reactions to adverse life events? Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 76(5), 257-259. Web.

Scheid, T. L., & Brown, T. N. (Eds.). (2010). A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. (2010). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), 110-119. Web.

World Health Organization. (2003). Investing in mental health. Web.

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