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What is Mental Health?

Mental health includes the whole range of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that come with being human. Just like physical health, mental health is important for daily functioning. Difficulties with mental health can impact many parts of life, from relationships, to school, work, recreation, motivation, and personal enjoyment.

There is no one definition for good mental health. What is healthy for one person to another can vary based on circumstances, culture, family upbringing, and their own personality.

Prevalence of mental health conditions

Mental disorders occur across the world. These are not unique to any nation, group, or culture. However, some groups of people have higher rates of specific disorders than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, for 2017 about 46.6 million U.S. adults age 18 or older had some forms of mental illness. Of those, 11.2 million adults had a serious mental illness, and nearly half percent of teens (ages 13 to 18) had a mental disorder.

Cause of mental health conditions

It is hard to know what causes a mental health disorder. For many, genetic and biological factors combine with life experiences to trigger a mental condition. The range of life experiences that can lead to mental health difficulties includes exposure to violence, sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, trauma, money problems, belonging to a minority or stigmatized group, homelessness, and living with a physical disease or chronic illness. Not all people who undergo these things will develop mental health conditions, however a percentage of vulnerable people will.

Common mental health conditions

Mental health disorders are grouped according to the symptoms. These symptoms help doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists diagnose and treat these mental conditions. Some of the more common mental health conditions are:

Major Depressive Disorder

Includes persistent low moods and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Often comes with sleep problems such as insomnia.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Features episodes of frequent, intense, and overwhelming anxiety.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Features repetitive behaviors (compulsions) in response to continuous and uncontrollable thoughts or urges (obsessions).

Eating Disorders

Includes anorexia nervosa (an obsessive desire to lose weight by avoiding food and compulsive exercise), bulimia nervosa (periods of excessive eating followed by efforts to avoid weight gain, often through vomiting), and binge-eating disorder (frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating, generally resulting in rapid weight gain).

Schizophrenia Spectrum and Psychotic Disorders

A group of conditions in which the person has a hard time discerning reality. Audible and visual hallucinations often occur. Unusual movements and broken speech are also common.

Bipolar Disorder

Includes large swings between elevated (manic) and severely depressed moods.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Features recurrent thoughts of a trauma, insomnia, and difficulty coping and performing daily tasks.

Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders

A dependence on a specific substance like alcohol or a behavior like gambling.

Personality Disorders

A group of disorders in which the personality causes major problems functioning in society.

There are many other mental health disorders, such as sexual dysfunction, gender dysphoria, impulse control, neurodevelopmental, and neurocognitive disorders.

Relationship between physical health and mental health

For those living with a physical health condition, the risk of having mental health issues increases. For example, rates of major depressive disorder are much higher in people who are in pain, or who have poor physical health compared to the general population. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • More difficulty managing the tasks of daily life
  • Financial strain
  • Chronic pain
  • Feeling isolated or being isolated
  • Loss of ability and/or employment
  • Being stigmatized
  • Low levels of understanding and empathy from others
  • Hardships managing a life-long illness

At the same time, the beginning of a physical disease can be frightening and distressing. Plans for the future and relationships may have to change. Physical changes created by the disease and treatments may affect thoughts and moods. Plus, the stresses, hardships, and unknowns created by drugs, surgery, insurance, and interacting with the health system can make people more vulnerable to mental issues.

Treatment for mental health

Many mental health conditions are treatable and people show improvement over time. Treatments for mental conditions include medicine, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, diet, exercise, or a stay in facilities for more intensive care. Any of these treatments can be combined.

Everyone responds differently to treatment, and no treatment works the same for every person. Though there are no “cures” for mental health conditions, there is help.

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: June 2020.