5.7 Editor's Pick
December 28, 2021

The Difficulty in Defining “Mental Health” & 4 Pillars that can serve as our Roadmap.


View this post on Instagram

A while ago, my employer asked me to complete an online course with the grand title of “Understanding Mental Health First Aid and Mental Health Advocacy in the Workplace.”

Yet, despite the impressive title, I wasn’t excited.

I am an experienced mental health worker and have battled poor mental health for many years. On first appearances, this course didn’t appear to offer me anything I didn’t already know.

However, my initial snobbishness was instantly shattered when, at the outset, I was simply asked to define the term “mental health.”

And…I couldn’t.

I can explain to you exactly what bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are; I can wax lyrical about attachment styles and your inner child; and I could bore you for hours about the causes of addiction. But when tasked with explaining mental health in one easy-to-understand, straightforward sentence I couldn’t find the words.

My definitions were long-winded, and— to be honest—utterly confusing. I may as well have been writing in Elvish.

How could something so straightforward be so damned difficult to describe?

Stuck, I began asking my friends and colleagues for help in defining this   seemingly most obvious of terms. However, far from providing any clarity, the waters got muddied even more.

When I asked a clinical psychologist who worked among the hurly-burly of a psychiatric ward, I got one answer. When I asked a person-centered counsellor who ran their practice from the confines of their comfy, Zen-infused home, I got another.

A junior doctor, who spent their nights slaving away in the emergency room and for whom mental health-related concerns lay at the heart of at least 75 percent of their patient’s travails, had lots of wonderfully insightful things to say. But their ideas didn’t match with those of a police officer. Although she also said that mental health-based issues accounted for about 75 percent of their workload as well, it was obvious that both the doctor and the police officer’s individual 75 percent was comprised of completely different things.

Meanwhile, a social worker who supervised children in foster care had very contrasting ideas about what mental health is when I compared them to a good friend, an adult who’s spent their life suffering from depression. Well, I say contrasting, but to be honest, I’m not sure they were even speaking about the same thing.

And then you have the added wrinkle that no single mental health condition is experienced by two people in the same way. Life events, age, cultural backgrounds, financial standing, physical health, and upbringing mean that even something as relatively easy to understand as “depression” varies from sufferer to sufferer, often wildly so.

I could go on and on. The point, just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, is that mental health is far from being straightforward.

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable. Our mental health is influenced by a myriad of factors, chief among them being the most enigmatic entity on the planet: the human brain. Thus, mental health, simply put, is a difficult-to-describe subject.

It’s unwieldy and messy and a little (well, a lot) mysterious; neat definitions aren’t always possible when you’re swimming in such murky waters. So, it’s okay if we struggle to pin down exactly what mental health is in a general, user-friendly, everyday manner.

But we need to.

Why? For starters, the majority of us aren’t afflicted by scary-sounding conditions such as “manic depression” or “generalised anxiety disorder,” but most of us will experience poor mental health at some point in our lives. And because of that, a user-friendly explanation could be invaluable.

However, this becomes even more important if you’re training to be a mental health first aid worker. After all, if you’re going to be an advocate for mental health in the workplace then you need to know what mental health is— how can you notice if a colleague is struggling if you don’t know what the yardstick is for those struggles?

To appreciate mental illness, you first have to understand exactly what mental health is.

Oh, yes—I needed a definition. And one that was nice and simple.

The definition I used as an anchor wasn’t my own (I’m still wrestling that semantic eel and it’s never stopped wriggling). It comes courtesy of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and they define mental health as:

“A state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

As soon as I read it, I knew I liked it. A lot.


Well, it’s—not to labour the point—a solid,  simple starting point. If we’re ever going to get better at talking about this trickiest of subjects, then we need to be clear about what exactly we’re talking about. We need some parameters— and that definition has them. You do not need to have either worked in mental health or suffered from poor mental health to grasp what we’re discussing here.

However, despite its seeming simplicity, WHO’s definition is also not reductive. Far from it.

Although it does so in an easy-to-digest manner, the sentence also references four distinct and hugely important pillars of mental health: self-actualization, resilience, vocation, and relationships. As such, it’s not just useful for any budding professional mental health advocate; it’s of wider relevance to us all.

Let’s take a deeper look at each pillar:

1. A state of well-being in which the individual…realises his or her own abilities

Realising your abilities isn’t simply about being the most successful you can be. After all, numerous studies have shown that “success” (whether financial or professional) rarely results in unalloyed happiness. No, the word abilities doesn’t just refer to your job and money—it’s all of you, personal and professional.

Granted, not all of us can fulfil our abilities; life is far too random and (occasionally downright) cruel for such simplicity. However, if you’re living a life where you’re not realising your abilities, don’t just work harder, take a look at your mental health.

Your listlessness might not be because of your job, car, or relationship—it might be something in you that needs exploring. I don’t want to pre-empt anything here, but you could be suffering from depression or anxiety, or you could simply be burnt out.

Your mental health is an indicator of your overall well-being. If red flags are waving and your abilities are not being realised, it might be time to look inward at what’s holding you back instead of simply blaming your boss or spouse.

It may have nothing to do with your mental health but exploring this is a good way to troubleshoot your life and your well-being as a whole.

And if you do find it’s your mental health? I offer you nothing but my sincerest congratulations—you’ve just taken the first step in getting better.

2. A state of well-being in which the individual…can cope with the normal stresses of life

Let’s be honest: for the most part, life sucks.

It’s messy, brutal, and short, and will probably have just as many moments of tragedy as joy. It’s a tough business being a human.

But that’s the job (sorry). It can be damned grim out there sometimes to survive, and to be able to appreciate the good times, you’ve got to learn to ride the waves of misery. If you don’t, you’ll drown.

But how do we do that? In a word, resilience. We’ve got to be able to cope.

No, if you suffer the death of a loved one or any other trauma, then not coping is okay. It’s healthy;  struggling during difficult times isn’t being weak, it’s being a human. Trust me: if you bottle that stuff up and stoically soldier on, there’s a big bump in the road coming at some point in the future.

But arguing with your partner? Or dealing with a crappy boss? Or struggling with a car that always chooses the most inopportune moments to break down? Or interacting with a family member who never has anything positive to say about you? I make no apologies for saying this,  but what you can’t change you’ve got to suck up. Everyday life is full of such stresses, and we’ve got to find a way through.

We’ve got to cope.

It’s not as harsh as it sounds though. Because if you thought about this for a minute, you’d see that you do this every single day. Some days it gets to you; other days you’re not even probably aware of any of it. But, if the normal stresses of everyday life are getting to you, then it might not just be because things are particularly hard right now; it might be because your mental health is in the red.

We all struggle. We all find it hard. But, if you’re not functioning, not living but simply existing, and not coping with those everyday annoyances, then it’s time to look at your mental health.

And, if that’s you, please, do it now.

3. A state of well-being in which the individual…can work productively and fruitfully

Jobs are often the suckiest part of the suck fest that is life. However, they’re how we are able to buy food, keep a roof over our heads, and pay for Netflix.

They’re also a good indicator of our mental health: if you need to sit in the car and cry for 30 minutes before entering the office, then you either need to find a new job or you should take a look at your mental health (in fact, do both).

I’m fully aware I’m being facetious—most of us can’t just walk out of our jobs because they make us miserable (let’s be honest, the majority of us wouldn’t go to work tomorrow if we could all do that). However, the truth of the statement remains:  if working productively and fruitfully is a struggle, taking a quick look at your mental health isn’t a bad idea.

4. A state of well-being in which the individual…is able to make a contribution to his or her community

And so, we come to the big one (yes, this is more important than all that job stuff).

Contributing to your community isn’t just about being a selfless do-gooder (though that is amazingly good for your mental health). It’s about building connections and being part of relationships that nourish and enrich your life.

Social isolation is a key indicator that your mental health is on the slide; if you’re permanently ensconced at home, not participating in the wider world, it might be time to step back and ask “why?” I’d be amazed if your mental health isn’t playing some part.

My journey as a mental health first aid worker has only just begun. However, thanks to that deceptively simple definition courtesy of WHO, I have a roadmap of sorts to navigate my way through the unfamiliar terrain.

And it’s a good roadmap. For hidden inside those 40 simple words is buried treasure—treasure we could all benefit from digging out and holding up to the daylight. And the shiniest jewels of all are those four gems of self-actualization, resilience, vocation, and relationships, which serve as the essence of mental health.

Talking about mental health is hard; it’s a slippery topic that often defies neat categorizations. That’s why that definition, although imperfect, could very well prove to be priceless, whether you are an advocate for mental health or just needing to recalibrate your own well-being.

It’s already been priceless to me.


Read 8 Comments and Reply

Read 8 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Christopher Donovan  |  Contribution: 29,155

author: Christopher Donovan

Image: oh_long_leslie/Instagram

Editor: Nicole Cameron

Relephant Reads:

See relevant Elephant Video