During UN’s World Mental Health Month in October 2022, UNU Macau’s Senior Researcher Dr. Jaimee Stuart curated the blog piece addressing the critical role of mental health in overall wellbeing, and the passage individual and society may take to achieve the goal of “making mental health for all a global priority”. To follow up, via UNU Macau’s social media channels, Dr. Stuart will share more tips regarding checking and maintaining mental health.
by Dr. Jaimee Stuart
As a Cultural and Developmental Psychologist who is centrally concerned with promoting mental health and wellbeing, it is fitting that I have arrived in my new post at UNU Macau during the UN World Mental Health Month. This is a time for me to reflect on my own strategies for keeping mentally healthy as staff member, as well as a time to consider how, as a researcher, I can contribute to the broader work of the United Nations in applying evidence-based solutions to increase mental wellness for everyone. To begin this journey, I wanted to unpack some assumptions and question our ideas about what it means to be in good mental health.
To better understand how to be mentally healthy we must first recognise that this is a critical pillar of overall health, and not a secondary, or less important element of physical health related only to the brain. Wellbeing results from a dynamic process that emerges from the interactions between a person and their environment such that good health is enabled and maintained (Minkkinen, 2013). Thus, to be healthy, one must have opportunities to feel well across a variety of interconnected domains (e.g., mental, physical, social, and spiritual). As Prince et al (2007) argued; there is no health without mental health, but we may also say that each element of health is interdependent.
But it is also important to know that mental health is not the opposite of mental illness, it is not equal to feeling happy, nor is it static. The two continua model (Keyes, 2005) highlights that we experience mental health on continuum from poor to good and we experience mental illness in the same way, from no or low levels of illness to high, disordered or persistent mental illness. This means that living with a mental disorder does not mean that one is in poor mental health, nor does the absence of mental disorder mean that an individual is in good mental health. However, poor mental health can perpetuate the burden of mental illness or can manifest into disorder. Thus, these concepts are distinct, but interconnected.
Additionally, people in good mental health are often sad, angry, or unhappy, and this is a normal and important part of life as we negotiate the experiences that we have and regulate our emotions toward them (Galderisi et al, 2015). Yet mental health has been often defined simply by positive affect, meaning that we consider this to be indicated by feelings of happiness, joy, or mastery. However, it is now widely recognised that mental health is also comprised of having a clear sense of meaning in one’s life, a feeling of purpose and a strong sense of self (Waterman, 1993). To be healthy, therefore, you should experience a range of emotions, but beyond this having the capacity to self-regulate, cultivating a sense of connectedness, and experiencing purpose are also key ingredients to mental health and wellbeing.
Also, as we move throughout our lives and have distinct stressors, life events, and experiences (for both the good and the bad), mental health and illness moves and changes. This means that there is no destination at which we arrive to be and become mentally well, but rather it is an ongoing process. The analogy here is a fulcrum, where our resources and capacities are in equilibrium with the risks, challenges, and opportunities in our lives. Often, of course, the balance shifts, and we must engage actively to settle the weight and to protect ourselves from many large drops and swings (although having these occasionally is also an inevitability).
The World Health Organisation (2005) suggests that mental health is ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. This points to the centrality and dynamism of mental health and is a definition that we can use flexibly to fit the diversity of circumstances we all face.
While the conceptualisation of mental health can be complex and challenging, it is also possible to start very simply and ask yourself (and others) to check in. By this I mean, reflect on how you feel, whether you have the resources to manage your circumstances, and whether you need help. Getting the balance right can mean that you might need a helping hand, but it also means reaching out to others when you see they are struggling.
Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276.
Galderisi, S., Heinz, A., Kastrup, M., Beezhold, J., & Sartorius, N. (2015). Toward a new definition of mental health. World psychiatry, 14(2), 231.
Keyes, C. L. M. (2005). Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 539–548.
Minkkinen, J. (2013). The structural model of child well-being, Child Indicators Research, 6(3), pp. 547–558. doi: 10.1007/s12187-013-9178-6.
Prince, M., Patel, V., Saxena, S., Maj, M., Maselko, J., Phillips, M. R., & Rahman, A. (2007). No health without mental health. The Lancet, 370(9590), 859-877.
Waterman, A. S. (1993). Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(4), 678.
World Health Organization. (2005). Promoting mental health: Concepts, emerging evidence, practice. Geneva: WHO.