It’s an expression we use every day, so it might surprise you that the term ‘mental health’ is frequently misunderstood. Mental health’ is often used as a substitute for mental health conditions – such as depression, anxiety conditions, schizophrenia, and others. But according to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being 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.”

So rather than being about ‘what’s the problem?’ it’s really about ‘what’s going well?'

"Wellness rather than illness"

To make things a bit clearer, some experts have tried coming up with different terms to explain the difference between ‘mental health’ and ‘mental health conditions’.

Phrases such as ‘good mental health’, ‘positive mental health’, ‘mental wellbeing’, ‘subjective wellbeing’ and even ‘happiness’ have been proposed by various people to emphasise that mental health is about wellness rather than illness.

While some say this has been helpful, others argue that using more words to describe the same thing just adds to the confusion.

Rather than being about ‘what’s the problem?’ it’s really about ‘what’s going well?’

Mental health is not

fixed

or static 

Understanding the mental health continuum

As a result, others have tried to explain the difference by talking about a continuum where mental health is at one end of the spectrum – represented by feeling good and functioning well. At the other end, mental health conditions are represented by symptoms that affect people’s thoughts, feelings or behaviour. Mental health is not fixed or static, and we can move back and forth along this continuum at different times during our lives.

It’s also important to remember that mental health is complex. The fact that someone is not experiencing a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean their mental health is flourishing. Likewise, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while feeling well in many aspects of life.

Ultimately, mental health is about being cognitively, emotionally and socially healthy – the way we think, feel and develop relationships – and not merely the absence of a mental health condition.

What is mental health in the workplace?

When we talk about mental health in the workplace, we’re looking at how our working environments affect us – either positively or negatively – as well as the effect our mental health has on our ability to do our jobs.

Work can make us feel good about ourselves and give us a sense of purpose, which helps to protect and improve our mental health. On the other hand, factors like job stress, bullying or discrimination can trigger a mental health condition or cause an existing condition to worsen.   

Some people’s experience of anxiety or depression will have no direct connection with their work – they might have been managing their condition for a while, for example, while working in different jobs. Equally, personal or relationship issues might result in someone developing a mental health condition, regardless of what’s going on at work.

But whatever the factors contributing to someone developing anxiety or depression, workplaces can play a key role by being flexible, providing support, and creating an environment where people feel comfortable raising their concerns and reaching out when they need it.

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