Defining and understanding mental health - UChicago Medicine (2024)

The term "mental health" encompasses our social, psychological and emotional well-being and impacts the way we feel, think and behave. It influences how we connect with others, how we make decisions and many other aspects of daily life. Poor mental health can impact physical health, increasing the risk for health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. How we handle challenges and stressful situations also can affect our overall well-being.

At the University of Chicago Medicine, the mission to provide superior healthcare to patients and communities starts with a healthy staff who feel they are supported and have access to the resources they need. To bring increased attention to the topic and better define and understand the many facets of Royce Lee, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, for an in-depth look into this very important topic.

Can you please define mental health?

Mental health is the state you are in when your body and mind are collectively working together. A helpful way to think of it is that your brain working in a way to serve you well. The brain is always doing as much as it can with very few resources. And there is a limit. When your mental health is doing poorly, you can begin to feel as if you’re spiraling or experiencing some type of disconnection in your world. That can ultimately lead to mental illnesses and leave an individual feeling stuck. I think it’s easy to remember that, just as your car will need a tune-up, your brain will need to restore its resources as well.

How do you know it’s time to seek help?

Sometimes we don’t know ourselves, but somebody close to us is aware that we need help. Sometimes, there’s a colleague, a friend or a family member who sees you struggling. Other times, we can know it’s time to seek help when daily life becomes challenging, even when stressors haven’t changed. So, changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns and having intense emotions, such as anxiety or despair, are some key signs for people to watch for.

What are some barriers?

I think that it’s also important to acknowledge the stigma associated with mental health. We need to normalize seeking counseling and help, and be comfortable with speaking out about our struggles.

There’s also the issue of access and the difficulties in getting care. Your primary doctor is always a great resource. They can begin treatment with you or begin the referral process. It is also important to be aware that, while it can be difficult to get an appointment, the emergence of telehealth has made it much easier to see a provider.

Can your mental health change over time?

For all of us, our mental health changes to help us adapt to the world around us. We can think of mental health as the sum total of mental, emotional and social resources available to meet the challenges the world throws at us. When our resources run low, we start to have symptoms or difficulties. Thus, the state of our mental health is always changing depending on the balance of resources and challenges. Research shows that most people will have mental health problems at some point in their lives; this is often not acknowledged when we try to think in terms of normal versus abnormal. The pandemic has made this clear to most of us. New research about mental health also reveals how tied our mental health is to our body.

For example, inflammation caused by activation of the immune system is very closely tied to what happens in our brain. Our inflammatory load changes from day to day depending on many factors: nutrition, pollution, stress, viral illness. Our mental health can follow along these ups and downs. This adds a new twist to the conversation that makes it clearer that sometimes the cause of mental health problems has nothing to do with the choices that we make or the values we may hold.

Is there a difference between mental health and mental illness?

There is an important difference between the concepts of mental health and mental illness. We increasingly think of mental health as a spectrum of mental and emotional wellbeing. Where we are on that spectrum is dynamic; it changes over time. It is entirely normal to have challenges at some point in our life. On the other hand, mental illness is a medical and scientific understanding of things like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, manic depression and other disorders treated with psychotherapy or medications. It is helpful here to think of medical illness as an example. If a person has a history of high blood pressure that is controlled with medications or diet and they feel healthy, are they “ill?" Most people would say no, that person is not medically ill. In other words, disorders are mental illnesses. However, people are not “mentally ill” really. It is more accurate to say there are people who may have a mental illness.

It is understandable that these terms are confusing. As with most ideas, we inherit ideas from the ages that came before our own. Historically, ideas of demonic possession and really catastrophic psychiatric problems were shaped by issues such as neurosyphilis. Our cultural or instinctive view of even milder problems like depression, known previously as melancholia, were shaped by cultural experiences of these states as untreatable. And many problems that we now consider to be “mental illnesses” were not recognized at all.

So, in summary, mental illness is a term used for clinicians to guide therapy and scientists to study disorders. As people and as a society though, thinking of mental health as a dynamic state with ups and downs is much closer to the truth of how things actually work.

How common are mental illnesses?

According to the CDC, more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 people in the U.S. will experience mental illness in a given year. In addition, 1 in 5 children have had or will have a seriously debilitating mental illness.

What is something that you would especially want people to understand and know about mental health?

Mental health problems are normal and not a sign of abnormality. It is not a sign of a moral flaw. And how we cope or learn to cope with the resources given to us looks different for everyone. It is really important that we decrease the stigma around asking for help.

Defining and understanding mental health - UChicago Medicine (2024)


Why is it hard to define mental health? ›

Diagnosing a mental illness begins when people see a doctor or psychiatrist. It can be difficult to define mental illnesses because they are conditions of the mind: they are diagnosed according to people's symptoms and behavior.

How to understand your mental health? ›

Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general, however, professional help might be needed if you experience: Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns. An inability to cope with problems or daily activities.

Why is it important for people to know about mental health? ›

Why is mental health important for overall health? Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. For example, depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Is mental health scientific? ›

Most scientists believe that mental illnesses result from problems with the communication between neurons in the brain (neurotransmission). For example, the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin is lower in individuals who have depression. This finding led to the development of certain medications for the illness.

What is the hardest mental illness to live with? ›

One of the Most Painful Mental Illnesses: Living with BPD Pain. Borderline personality disorder is one of the most painful mental illnesses since individuals struggling with this disorder are constantly trying to cope with volatile and overwhelming emotions.

Why are there so many definitions of mental health? ›

A definition of health encompassing the mental and social domains may vary more in application, particularly across systems, cultures or clinical practices that differ in values (eg, spiritual, religious) and ways of understanding and being (eg, epistemology).

Is ADHD a mental illness? ›

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. Symptoms of ADHD include inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).

How do you know your mental health is not OK? ›

Being more quiet or withdrawn than usual. Withdrawing from life, especially if this is a major change from your usual personality, could indicate a mental health disorder. If a friend or loved one is isolating themselves and refusing to join in social activities, they may need help.

What are the four types of mental health? ›

mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder) anxiety disorders. personality disorders. psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia)

What is the most important thing in mental health? ›

Paying more attention to the present moment can improve your mental wellbeing. This includes your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness "mindfulness". Mindfulness can help you enjoy life more and understand yourself better.

What are the 5 points of mental wellbeing? ›

Check them out below.
  • Step 1 – Connect. Connecting with others can help us feel close to people, and valued for who we are. ...
  • Step 2 – Get active. Many people find that physical activity helps them maintain positive mental health. ...
  • Step 3 – Take notice. ...
  • Step 4 – Learn. ...
  • Step 5 – Give.

Is mental health psychological or biological? ›

At the Mental Health Foundation, we know that mental health is complex and our wellbeing is determined by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors: Biological factors, e.g. physical health, genetics, diet, sleep, age.

What is the definition of mental health? ›

Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.

What part of the brain controls mental illness? ›

The amygdala, which is centrally involved in the brain's response to threats, is thought to play an important role in anxiety. So are other major components of the limbic system, the hippocampus (critical for memory and fear learning) and the hypothalamus (which controls the release of hormones).

Why is it important to talk about mental health at work? ›

By opening up to them, you are giving your employer the opportunity to appropriately support you; ultimately, they can only help with issues they know about. Understanding what you are struggling with, and how it affects your work, gives them the chance to tailor your environment to your needs.

Why is mental health education important? ›

The Value of Mental Health Education

Learning about mental health in school gives students the opportunity to not only understand what might be going on with them but also how to support and understand their friends and peers.

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