While these three terms are often used interchangeably, there are important differences in what they mean.
Mental Health affects everyone – from childhood through adulthood – and impacts a person's psychological, emotional, and social well-being. When mental health suffers, it can result in mental illness -- diagnosable conditions that negatively affect how a person thinks, feels, and behaves3. While the definition of what is and isn't an official mental illness can sometimes be controversial, most mental illnesses are found in people across the globe. This indicates that mental illness is an actual biological condition instead of behavior that goes against societal expectations and cultural norms4.
Not everyone struggles with mental illness, but we all have mental ups and downs. Unlike mental health, mental wellness refers to how well we can respond to positive and negative emotions and handle the stress that occurs in our daily lives5. People with mental illness can often achieve better mental wellness, for example, by learning new skills from talk therapy or by responding well to medication6. And while stressors and problems may affect a person's mood, it doesn't necessarily impair mental wellness, which has to do with how a person deals with their emotions, thoughts, and actions over the long term, through good times and bad5,7.
Mental wellbeing refers to general feelings and attitudes that you feel about yourself and your life. A person with good mental well-being has a satisfying life, a strong sense of purpose, and displays generally positive emotions – despite the inevitable challenges of life8.
When it comes to their own thoughts and emotions, people often casually use (and misuse) mental health terms. For example, someone might say they were "depressed" when they were having a bad day, or their "ADD" kicked in when they got bored in class. However, there's a difference between "feeling depressed" and having depression or feeling anxious versus having a generalized anxiety or panic disorder.
Similarly, not everyone who is distracted suffers from attention deficit disorder (ADD). Depressed mood, anxiety, and ADD are clinical mental health disorders that must be diagnosed by a doctor. But even though you don't have a clinical condition, you may still have problems coping due to issues that impact your life situation, body, and mental outlook.
Mental wellness is a complex issue that is impacted by many factors. Some of these include9, 10, 11:
Several biological factors impact mental wellness, including chemical imbalances, genetics, poor nutrition, inflammation, brain injuries, congenital disabilities, substance abuse, and others. Having a physical illness also impacts mental wellness.
Stress from the outside world can - and does - impair mental wellness. Factors like your living environment, employment, finances, safety, and other issues (such as the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic) can cause all mental distress.
Having good relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, making meaningful contributions to -- and being part of -- a support system, and feeling a sense of belonging all play an important role in mental and emotional wellness.
A personal sense of purpose, strong communication skills, and the ability to deal with outside stressors can all positively impact a person's mental state.
Some mental health issues require the use of prescribed medications, typically in combination with psychotherapy from a licensed expert. However, there are also steps that any person can take to help improve their own mental and physical wellness12, 13, 14, 15.
1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Multiple studies have found that eating too much refined sugar or processed food impacts brain functioning and stresses organs like the pancreas. These create negative insulin responses that cause surges in stressor hormones, like cortisol, and increase inflammation. These biological responses can exacerbate anxiety, along with depressed and negative moods. However, good nutrition and only eating when you're hungry can help regulate blood sugar and energy levels, leading to better moods and focus.
2. Get enough sleep.
People struggling with poor mental well-being often battle with sleep, suffering more from insomnia and sleep apnea than those with higher mental wellness. Researchers have found that a good night's sleep – especially deep, REM sleep – is critical for the brain to process emotional information. Not getting enough sleep hinders the brain's ability to merge positive emotional data, which in turn can lead to more negative thinking and behaviors.
3. Exercise regularly.
Exercise is a natural stress reliever. When you are physically active, it changes the body's chemistry in a positive way, boosting dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, which can improve mood and concentration. Exercise also removes tension from the body and helps relax muscles, which can help lead to good sleep.
4. Stop smoking.
People who have poor mental well-being tend to smoke more than those with higher mental well-being. The reason is often physical. People struggling with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety may produce lower dopamine levels, which influence positive feelings in the brain. Nicotine triggers dopamine production, so cigarettes can help provide temporary relief. However, smoking is not only bad for physical health; researchers are finding it can also worsen depression and anxiety.
5. Avoid alcohol.
Many people turn to alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, and depressed feelings. However, alcohol is a depressant, disrupting the neurotransmitters that impact your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. While a drink may temporarily help a person feel relaxed or less anxious, the effect wears off quickly and can lead to increased negative feelings. Research indicates that people who drink a lot are at risk of having more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
6. Stay connected.
There's nothing like having a friend. Strong relationships and positive social connections can help improve both physical and mental health. Feeling connected to others has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, strengthen the immune system, and reduce inflammation. If you are not in a place where you can build face-to-face relationships, technology can help. Studies have found that online friendships can provide many of the same health benefits as in-person relationships. Another good way to connect is to look for an online community of people who share your unique interests.
7. Get a pet.
Studies show that animals – particularly dogs and cats – can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depressed moods. Even watching a fish tank has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve mental wellness. Pets also provide a sense of purpose and connection which is important for staying positive and can often help individuals get more exercise. Playing with a pet also can raise the brain's feel-good chemicals – like dopamine and oxytocin. But, of course, a pet is a long-term commitment, and you should not get a pet unless you are willing and able to care for the animal properly.
8. Practice stress relievers.
Yoga, journaling, meditation, breathing exercises, etc., are all proven methods for reducing stress, which can help improve your mental state.
9. Balance work and life.
While working long hours is often encouraged by our culture, it is not healthy – physically or mentally. It's important to set boundaries – like not working past a specific time at night or making sure you take a lunch break – to help avoid burnout. Finding and partaking in hobbies you enjoy and are excited about can make it easier to separate yourself from work. Hobbies can also help you build and maintain connections.
10. Seek professional help if needed.
While the practices listed in this article can help improve mental wellbeing, sometimes they simply aren't enough, or you may need more immediate help. When other methods don't help, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can provide the guidance and resources needed to help set you on a more positive.
If you're not sure where to turn, check with your employer. Many companies provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that can help workers cope with stress-related issues, as well as addiction, depression, anxiety, and other common mental health issues.
Sometimes, dealing with mental health issues can require taking time off – which could last for weeks or even years. Taking extended time off can lead to loss of income, which is a potent stressor itself. Disability insurance can help by replacing a portion of your regular income if you are too sick or injured to work, and many policies now provide benefits for disabilities caused by mental health issues. If your employer offers a group short-term disability or long-term disability insurance option, it's worth considering as a way to help reduce financial pressure until you are able to work productively again.
How can I improve my mental wellness?
Mental health and physical health are interconnected. So, taking care of yourself physically – exercising regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, getting quality sleep, and avoiding cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol – all play a large role in improving mental wellness12, 13, 14, 15. Other important aspects of overall mental health include building connections, finding a support system, practicing stress management, and taking time to do things you enjoy. If needed, it's also important to get professional help.
What is good mental wellbeing?
It's a broad term that refers to the ability to have a satisfying life. Of course, everyone experiences setbacks and hard times, but it's important to maintain a sense of purpose, and acquire the coping skills to handle life's ups and downs. Mental well-being and emotional health can be developed by taking steps to improve your mental wellness, e.g., by taking better physical care of yourself, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, staying socially connected -- and seeking appropriate professional treatment when needed12, 13, 14, 15.
What are the 4 types of mental health?
There are nearly 300 mental disorders listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is the handbook health professionals use to identify and diagnose mental illnesses. Most of these fall under one of seven main categories4:
- Mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder)
- Anxiety disorders (e.g., panic disorder)
- Personality disorders (e.g., Narcissism, OCD)
- Psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia)
- Eating Disorders (e.g., anorexia)
- Trauma-related disorders (e.g., PTSD)
- Substance Abuse Disorders (e.g., drug addiction)