What Is Mental Health?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2023

Mental health is the range of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that affect your well-being and how you relate to others. Just like good physical health, good mental health is vital for daily functioning. Good mental health allows you to cope with the stresses of life and achieve your full potential.1

Mental health may vary from person to person and change with time. Everyone can be affected by mental health challenges such as stress, grief, and trauma. While severe challenges may require help from a professional, they often improve or pass with time.2

On the other hand, some people have diagnosable mental health conditions. These conditions are diagnosed and treated by medical professionals. They often involve serious changes in:2

  • Thinking, mood, or behavior
  • Ability to engage in daily social, work, or family activities

Who gets mental health conditions?

Having a mental health condition is not something to be ashamed of. These conditions are common around the world. Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States have a mental health condition. An estimated 1 in 6 American children between the ages of 6 and 17 have a mental health condition.2,3

What causes mental health conditions?

A mental health condition typically is not the result of a single event. Doctors believe genes, environment, and lifestyle interact with life events to cause a mental health condition to develop. A stressful job may be a contributing factor for some, while trauma might be for others.2,3

Not all people who have such events or situations develop a mental health condition. But if you do have a mental health condition, it is not your fault.2,3

Common mental health conditions

Depression

Depression may also be called major depressive disorder. Depression is more than feeling “blue” or simply sad. Depression is a serious medical condition that affects how you feel, act, and think. Symptoms vary widely and may include one or more of the following in an episode that lasts longer than 2 weeks:4

  • Low moods
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Sleep problems

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is anxiety or worry about multiple things, most days, for at least 6 months. This fear and anxiety can cause major problems in life, including social situations, school, and work.5

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person has panic attacks. Panic attacks are brief episodes of intense fear. These may happen right after a certain event or situation makes you feel especially stressed. Sometimes it seems to happen at random.5

The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include:5

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shaking

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which people may perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions). They also may have constant and uncontrollable thoughts or urges (obsessions).6

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that cause severe disturbances in eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. There are 3 main types:7

  • Anorexia nervosa: An intense desire to lose weight by avoiding or restricting food, or by compulsively exercising
  • Bulimia nervosa: Frequent episodes of excessive eating followed by harmful efforts to avoid weight gain
  • Binge eating disorder: Frequent episodes of losing control over eating, usually resulting in weight gain

Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders

People with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and other psychotic disorders cannot distinguish between reality and their hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations are when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels things that do not exist outside their mind. A delusion happens when a person has an unshakeable belief in something untrue.8,9

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder (type 1 or 2) involves an extreme fluctuation between moods. These episodes may last at least several days, with the person moving between elevated or depressed moods.10,11

The elevated moods are called mania. Mania can make a person very active and cause them to feel elated or “high.” It can also cause them to become more irritable or engage in risky behaviors.10,11

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop following a shocking, scary, or dangerous event or series of events. PTSD may cause:12

  • Repeating thoughts of the trauma
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble performing daily tasks
  • Severe impairment

Sleep disorders

Sleep and mental health are closely linked. People living with mental health conditions are more likely to have problems with the quality and amount of sleep they get. And sleep disorders like insomnia increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and problems focusing or making decisions.13

Substance use disorder

Substance use disorder is dependence or addiction to specific substances, such as alcohol or drugs. It often co-occurs with other mental health conditions. Substance use disorder should be treated at the same time as any other mental health issues.14

Personality disorders

People with personality disorders have emotions and behaviors that depart from social norms. Their emotions and behaviors tend to be inflexible and unable to respond to life’s demands. These disorders cause issues in relationships and other important areas of life.15,16

Chronic illness and depression

Rates of depression are much higher in people with chronic illness than in the general population. The reasons for this may include:17

  • Problems managing daily tasks
  • Increased financial strain
  • Chronic pain
  • Feeling isolated
  • Loss of function or ability to work
  • Stigma, when people view you in a negative way
  • Drugs for treating illness or condition may affect your thoughts and mood

Treatment for mental health conditions

Many mental health conditions are treatable and far more common than you may think. Treatment depends on the mental health condition and what is best for each person. Options include:3,18

  • Talk therapy
  • Medicine
  • Learning positive coping skills
  • Behavioral change plans
  • Social programs
  • Support groups
  • Hospital admission for daily monitoring and increased care

These treatments may be applied together, and there may be other options for you. Though there are no cures for mental health conditions, there are treatment options that can help you live well.

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