What is mental health?

This blog is based on material from the book What is mental health? Where does it come from? And other big questions by Dr Lucy Maddox. Our Time contributed to the book that is now available to buy. Follow the link to our ‘recommended reads’ on the right for further purchase information

Mental health often gets mixed up with mental illness, but mental illness is not the same as mental health. Our mental health is to do with how we think and feel about ourselves, the world around us and other people. It’s to do with how we manage really big feelings, how we get on with each other, how we make choices, how we handle stressful situations and what we do. It’s linked to our physical health too. EVERYONE has mental health. It’s really important that we look after our mental health and the mental health of those around us.

Mental health is a spectrum 

Our physical health can range from us feeling terrible to feeling great, and everything in between. Our mental health can do this too. Sometimes we might feel really on top of things and comfortable in who we are –  as if we could handle anything. Other times we might feel extremely scared or upset or find it hard to think clearly. We might feel very alone. If we feel really sad or frightened like this it can make it hard to cope with everyday life and do the things we want to do. There is a whole range of mental health, from feeling good and being able to do what we like, to needing extra help with thoughts or feelings or behaviours that have got out of hand. 

Mental health and feelings 

Having good mental health doesn’t mean being happy all the time. No one only feels happy. Different feelings are useful to get us to do things and to help us understand things that happen. Strong feelings aren’t bad.

Sometimes it might feel like our feelings are being blown about by the wind. We might wake up one day feeling really grumpy, and then, later on, feel happy. We might wake up in the night feeling scared, and then in the morning can’t imagine how strong that worry was. Feelings are a bit like the weather, they come and go. One thing that’s certain is that they will change, though sometimes it takes a while. 

How are mental health and physical health-related? 

Our mental health and our physical health affect each other. It’s not surprising really, because most processes to do with our emotions and thoughts happen in our brain, which is part of our body.

Exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, and taking time to rest are all things that are important for our mental health as well as our physical health. So in that way, it’s win-win, these things are good for us all over. 

Recent research into links between our gut and our brain shows that we are only just beginning to understand some of the ways that healthy eating can boost how we feel.

Stress impacts on our mental health, and it can also have physical effects. Some physical health conditions can be associated with stress, and some physical symptoms can be helped by relieving stress. 

If we are physically healthy we can do more things we want to do and we usually feel happier. If we are physically unwell or have a physical disability then this might get in the way of what we want to do and we might feel sad, anxious or frustrated. Having a physical illness or disability increases the risk of mental health problems, although this doesn’t mean that someone with a physical health problem will always have a mental health problem. 

Mental health problems 

Having a mental health problem or a difficulty doesn’t mean anything bad or different about someone as a person, it’s part of the range of human experiences that any of us could have. Sometimes people struggle for a bit with something and then go back to feeling fine; other times people learn to live alongside a mental health problem for longer. Either way, there is help available and it’s good to talk about how we feel. 

Find Lucy on Instagram as @drlucymaddox and on Twitter as @lucy_maddox.

An image of a display of the book 'What is mental health? Where does it come from? And other big questions.' by Dr Lucy Maddox.

Free resources to accompany the book are available at www.lucymaddox.co.uk/resources