Mental Health, a psychological state of well-being, characterized by continuing personal growth, a sense of purpose in life, self-acceptance, and positive relations with others. Some people define mental health as the absence of mental illness, but many psychologists consider this definition too narrow. Mental health can also refer to a field of study encompassing both mental health and mental illness.
II ELEMENTS OF MENTAL HEALTH
Psychologists have identified a number of distinct dimensions of mental health. These include self-acceptance, or self-esteem, characterized by a positive evaluation of oneself and one’s past experiences; personal growth reflected in one’s sense of continued psychological growth and development; a sense that one’s life has purpose and meaning; positive relations with others; environmental mastery, the capacity to manage effectively in the surrounding world; and autonomy, a sense of self-determination and the ability to control one’s own life. Self-acceptance, relations with others, environmental mastery, and autonomy usually improve as a person ages and gains life experience. However, many people find that their personal growth and sense of purpose in life begin to decline in midlife.
Some psychologists regard mental health as the ability to maintain a balance between positive and negative emotions, such as elation and sadness. In this view, a person who displays emotional extremes in either direction is less well-adjusted. Other psychologists emphasize the role of one’s environment in influencing well-being. This perspective sees mental health reflected in a person’s overall happiness with various domains of life, such as social relationships, work, and community life.
III FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE MENTAL HEALTH
A number of different aspects of life can influence mental health. In a mid-1970s study of people living in the United States, researchers identified critical areas that influence one’s mental health. These areas are working life, family life, and the social role that one occupies in the community. Negative experiences in these areas, such as an unreasonable boss or a turbulent family life, can reduce one’s overall sense of well-being.
Another important influence on mental health is stress. In general, people experience stress when the demands placed on them exceed the resources they have available to meet those demands. Significant sources of stress include major life events, such as divorce, death of a spouse, loss of a job, and illness in the family. These events can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope and function effectively. In addition, one source of stress may lead to another, as when financial hardship follows job loss. People who experience unusually traumatic events, such as rape and natural disasters, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
People may experience chronic stress when confronted with a continuing set of demands that reduce their ability to function. Examples of such demands include working long hours under difficult circumstances and caring for a chronically ill relative. Economic hardship, unemployment, and poverty can also produce chronic stress and undermine mental health.
Some studies suggest that genetic factors may partly determine one’s level of happiness and mental health. People seem to display a characteristic level of well-being, with some people usually feeling happy and others typically feeling sad or unhappy. Researchers have found that although people’s moods change in response to both positive and negative events, the effect wears off over time. For example, people who win the lottery or receive an unexpected promotion may feel happier at first, but over time they return to their former characteristic level of mental health. Research suggests that one’s genetic background—that is, the genes inherited from one’s parents—explains more than half of the differences in people’s characteristic mood levels. Genes may also partly determine the range of ups and downs that people feel, including whether people have large mood swings or remain stable from day to day.
IV MAINTAINING MENTAL HEALTH
The ability to cope with adversity can be crucial for the mental health of the individual. Coping means successfully dealing with problems that arise in life. People differ substantially in the way they cope with adversity. Some people engage in emotion-focused coping, a strategy that focuses on managing one’s emotions. Examples of this coping strategy include distracting one’s attention from the problem, denying the problem, venting one’s emotions, or sharing emotions with others. A second form of coping, problem-focused coping, involves efforts to reduce stress by solving the problem. People who use this strategy take active steps to overcome the problem, such as seeing a counselor to repair a relationship or looking for a new job in response to problems at work. They may also seek advice from friends and family members.
Some people use coping skills more effectively than others. However, research has shown that people can learn new coping skills. For example, counselors can teach children how to handle difficulties in school. Adults can be taught skills to cope with stressful life events, such as job loss and divorce. Teaching people coping skills before they encounter adversity, or early in the stages of a crisis, appears an effective method of preventing poor mental health. Learning effective coping strategies also directly improves mental health by improving one’s sense of mastery and self-esteem.
Social support from friends and family members also promotes good mental health. This support can take several forms. Other people can offer concrete help in a crisis, such as providing shelter to families victimized by a natural disaster or alerting an unemployed person to a job opportunity. In addition, other people can provide an important source of emotional support. Friends respond with concern, empathy, and advice to a person facing difficulties or loss. They boost confidence and self-esteem by offering reassurance and compliments. Self-help groups provide support by enabling people with similar problems to share their experiences and emotions. Conversely, research has shown that negative social interactions, such as constant criticism and belittlement from other people, can undermine mental health.
Other ways of maintaining good mental health involve physical activities. For example, research has shown that regular aerobic exercise helps to boost self-esteem, relieve depression, and improve concentration. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, also help to combat the effects of stress.
Richard H. Price