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What is mental health?

Medically reviewed by Marney A. White, PhD, MS, Psychology — By Adam Felman and Rachel Ann Tee-Melegrito — Updated on December 23, 2022

Mental health is all about how people think, feel, and behave. Mental health specialists can help people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, and other conditions that affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Mental health can affect daily living, relationships, and physical health.

However, this link also works in the other direction. Factors in people’s lives, interpersonal connections, and physical factors can contribute to mental ill health.

Looking after mental health can preserve a person’s ability to enjoy life. Doing this involves balancing life activities, responsibilities, and efforts to achieve psychological resilience.

Stress, depression, and anxiety can all affect mental health and disrupt a person’s routine.

Although health professionals often use the term mental health, doctors recognize that many psychological disorders have physical roots.

This article explains what people mean by mental health and mental illness. We also describe the most common types of mental disorders, including their early signs and how to treat them.

What is mental health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO)Trusted Source:

“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.”

The WHO states that mental health is “more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.” Peak mental health is not only about managing active conditions but also looking after ongoing wellness and happiness.

It also emphasizes that preserving and restoring mental health is crucial individually and at a community and society level.

In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that almost 1 in 5 adults experience mental health problems each year.

In 2020, an estimated 14.2 million adultsTrusted Source in the U.S., or about 5.6%, had a serious psychological condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Risk factors for mental health conditions
Everyone is at some risk of developing a mental health disorder, regardless of age, sex, income, or ethnicity. In the U.S. and much of the developed world, mental disorders are one of the leading causes of disability.

Social and financial circumstances, adverse childhood experiences, biological factors, and underlying medical conditions can all shape a person’s mental health.

Many people with a mental health disorder have more than one condition at a time.

It is important to note that good mental health depends on a delicate balance of factors and that several elements may contribute to developing these disorders.

The following factors can contribute to mental health disruptions.

Continuous social and economic pressure
Having limited financial means or belonging to a marginalized or persecuted ethnic group can increase the risk of mental health disorders.

A 2015 Iranian studyTrusted Source describes several socioeconomic causes of mental health conditions, including poverty and living on the outskirts of a large city.

The researchers also described flexible (modifiable) and inflexible (nonmodifiable) factors that affect the availability and quality of mental health treatment for certain groups.

Modifiable factors for mental health disorders include:

socioeconomic conditions, such as whether work is available in the local area
a person’s level of social involvement
housing quality

Nonmodifiable factors include:
The researchers found that being female increased the risk of low mental health status by nearly 4 times. People with a “weak economic status” also scored highest for mental health conditions in this study.

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