By Kathryn Bekavac
On Axis: Psychology and Wellbeing
Mental health and wellbeing are frequently used terms in books, on websites and even in the Australian curriculum. The concepts of mental health and wellbeing have applications across a broad range of disciplines. Different definitions can be found in relation to health, education, psychology and philosophy, to name just a few. Each discipline highlights the importance of positive mental health and wellbeing for each person and for the community. To implement strategies to protect and enhance mental health and wellbeing, it is helpful to develop an understanding of these concepts. The following questions will be addressed. What is mental health and what is wellbeing? How do mental health and wellbeing relate to each other? How do they contribute to feeling good and living well?
Mental health will be considered first. Everyone has a state of mental health, just as everyone has a state of physical health. Each person’s mental health can fluctuate over time in response to life events, environmental conditions and social relationships. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines positive mental health for adults and children. An adult with positive mental health knows their own abilities, copes with the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and contributes to their community. A child with positive mental health has a positive sense of identity, manages their thoughts and emotions, builds social relationships, engages with learning, and will be able to participate actively in their community. Overall, positive mental health has been linked to improved quality of life, better physical health, increased education attainment and positive social relationships
Mental health difficulty refers to the presence of psychological symptoms that affect thoughts, feelings or behaviour. Mental health difficulties may include depression, anxiety or stress. While everyone experiences sadness from time to time, or worries unnecessarily about their performance, serious symptoms are associated with mental health difficulties and negatively impact relationships and everyday living. Short term stress can be productive, providing the adrenalin a person needs to perform well. However, ongoing high levels of stress can cause a person to become overwhelmed and disorganized.
Wellbeing will now be considered in more detail. In addition to positive emotions, wellbeing is achieved through the development and satisfaction of basic human needs for autonomy, competence and social relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). A person experiences autonomy when their actions, tasks and goals are self-chosen, rather than imposed or controlled by others. A person experiences competence when they can effectively manage the interactions, tasks and challenges in their daily lives while achieving goals. Finally, a person experiences social relatedness when they trust, rely on, value and care for others and experience others trusting, relying on, valuing and caring for them. For optimal wellbeing, all three needs require fulfillment in a balanced way. Thus, to feel good and live well, Ryan and Deci recommend setting and attaining goals that satisfy the needs for autonomy, competence and social relatedness.
Wellbeing is complex in that if someone is not experiencing mental health difficulties, this doesn’t necessarily mean their wellbeing is flourishing. Similarly, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health difficulty while feeling well in many aspects of life. Thus, wellbeing is more than just the absence of mental health difficulties and is a combination of feeling good and functioning well (Huppert & Johnston, 2010). It enables strong social connections, resilience, a sense of purpose, skills for living and working, success in education and control to manage a quality life.
There are a range of ways to seek education about mental health and wellbeing. Once awareness and understanding has been developed, it is important for each person to develop a wellbeing plan to enhance mental health and apply their learnings in their unique situations. One of the ways that may suit is to develop a wellbeing plan in partnership with a psychologist to implement evidence based practical strategies and tools. These may include strategies for stress management, exercise, positive relationships and creativity to empower themselves and others. A trusted psychologist can also form part of the team to support a person with managing a mental health difficulty and reducing distress. Remember that someone can have optimal wellbeing with a mental health difficulty and that someone else can have poor wellbeing without a mental health difficulty. Mental health and wellbeing both need to be managed to feel good and live a quality life.
Huppert, F.A., & Johnson, D.M. (2010). A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools: The importance of practice for an impact on well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology. 5, 264-274.
Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55, 68-78.
World Health Organisation. (2014). Mental Health: Strengthening our response.