What is mental health, and why is it important?

We hear a lot of talk about mental health. In the news, we read how Covid affected well being or social media’s impact on young people’s minds. But what is meant by the term mental health?

We can have mental health disorders and poor mental health and events can impact it, and we read articles on how to improve it. But mental health is not something tangible that we can touch and mould into a better shape, but if we understand what the term means and what it encompasses, we can take steps to improve it.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) mental health is “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

I prefer this more simple definition of mental health provided by the CDC. Mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing and impacts how we think, feel, act, handle stress, establish relationships, and make healthy choices. Mental health is essential at all stages of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and ageing.

Why is mental health important?

Understanding and looking after your emotional wellbeing helps you

  • cope with the ups and downs of daily life
  • have quality relationships
  • go to work or school
  • look after physical health

When your mental health suffers, all aspects of life mentioned above can also suffer as you may not have the mental resources to cope with everyday life or make the necessary effort in relationships or work. For example, Kate enjoyed a good relationship and a well-paying job until she developed a long-term illness.

Her illness made it difficult for her to work, and she cut down her hours, resulting in a smaller pay cheque. The extra stress she experienced with cash flow and managing her new identity as someone with a chronic illness affected her mental health, and she started to experience anxiety.

Is mental health set in stone, or can it change?

It is fluid and can change. In the example above with Kate, her state of mind suffered due to a period of ill health which impacted her financial situation. Kates’s health could recover if, for example, her physical health improved, and she could ease her financial problems by returning to work full-time. Kate’s mental health could improve, even if her physical health did not, by learning to accept her illness and making the necessary lifestyle and emotional adjustments.

What causes mental health difficulties?

I use the expression ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ a lot. You don’t have to be religious to understand the point I am going to make. When I use the expression, it has nothing to do with religion, for me, it means anything can happen to me, but not this time. Any of us can suffer from mental health problems given the right set of circumstances.

The circumstances that can affect state of mind include

  • genetics
  • whether you born into a socially disadvantaged family or area
  • drug and alcohol
  • acquired head injury
  • abuse and neglect
  • physical illness
  • life experiences

What treatments are available for mental health issues?

If you are having problems with your mental health there are different approaches available depending on the severity of your problem. This could be social support if your issues are mild through to therapy and medication if you have been diagnosed with a condition.


Therapy is a type of treatment that is used to address mental health issues. It typically takes a psychological approach to help you understand and manage your issue. Examples of therapy that can be used include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy.

Therapy may be offered individual or part of a group. For example, I used to run a psychoeducational group for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as seem the participants individually for therapy.


You might be prescribed medication to help with your mental health. Medication can be taken along side therapy. Common medications include

  • SSRI’s; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, for anxiety and depression
  • Lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder

Social support

If your state of mind taken a dip, support from friends and family may be enough to see you through. Research has shown the effectiveness


Exercise has a positive impact on your mental wellbeing; it can decrease depression and anxiety.


Geeting adequate sleep is essential for good mental health. If your sleep is disrupted, you start your day with less resources to meet all the demands of your day.

Sleep can also alert people with certain conditions, that they need to take extra care. For example, feeling the need for less sleep can be a warning sign ( prodromal stage) for people with bipolar that they might be approaching mania.

Self care tips to help maintain your mental health

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eating a good diet and staying hydrated.
  • Getting adequate sleep.
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs.
  • Breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks.
  • Cultivating healthy relationships.
  • Practising mindfulness and gratitude.
  • Challenging negative thoughts.
  • Connecting and maintaining meaningful relationships.
  • Performing relaxing activities such as breathing exercises, meditation, wellness apps, and journaling.
  • Setting boundaries to communicate needs.


It’s important to remember that your mental health can change. It can deteriorate if you do not look after it, but there are many things that you can do to change it should that happen.

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