What Is Mental Health?

A woman smiling peacefully.
Mental health is an important aspect of our overall health. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

We often hear the term "mental health" used in reference to conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. But really, "mental health" refers to our overall emotional, psychological and social well-being, both in and outside the context of named conditions, according to MentalHealth.gov, a resource curated by the U.S. government. 

Our mental health impacts how we think, feel and behave; it shapes how we perceive the world, make decisions and handle stress when it comes our way. 

Experts told Live Science a few ways that everyone can check in with their mental health on a daily basis. They also emphasized that no one should be ashamed or scared to seek help from friends, family or mental health professionals when times are tough.

As always, if you or someone you know is in an emergency, you can call or text The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). 

Mental health hygiene

Our mental well-being can be impacted by many aspects of our lives, including our social relationships, physical health, level of productivity, and access to basic necessities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Individuals may also differ in their mental health due to their particular genetic traits and personality, as well as demographic factors such as socio-economic status, race, gender identity and sexual orientation.  

Although everyone's mental health differs, in general, people can benefit from performing "small activities of daily living" that help fulfil their baseline needs, said Danielle Roubinov, an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. For instance, getting adequate sleep and regular exercise can be hugely helpful to maintaining mental health.      

"We're not necessarily talking about formal exercise, but just being outside — gentle movement can count," Roubinov said. Spending time with people you care about, be that friends, family, coworkers or social groups, can also bolster your mental health, she added.

Related: 9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

For children, specifically, maintaining "supportive relationships with important caregivers can buffer the impact of stress," said Roubinov, who studies the impact of early adversity and trauma on children's psychological health. It's well-established that a mother's poor mental health can place her children at greater risk of developing poor mental health and mood disorders, for example. In a 2019 study, Roubinov found that this relationship actually goes both ways: a toddler's negative mood may also impact mom's mental health. 

Beyond personal health and social networks, people with good mental health tend to enjoy a "sense of achievement" and purpose in their daily lives, said Karthik Gunnia, a visiting assistant professor at New York University and a clinical psychologist in private practice. Sometimes people find agency in their place of work, while others may benefit from completing smaller tasks, like tidying the house or running errands, he said. 

But mental health maintenance isn't all about work and productivity ⁠— finding time for activities you simply enjoy is also very important, Gunnia added. 

Spending time with people you care about and getting regular exercise are effective ways to help maintain mental health.  (Image credit: Shutterstock)

What is mindfulness? 

These days, "mindfulness" is a common buzzword in discussions of mental health. But what does it really mean? 

"There's a misconception that mindfulness equals meditation, and we have to sit on a pillow and find zen," Gunnia said. Actually, he explained, mindfulness simply refers to the act of bringing your attention to what you're doing in the present moment. More broadly, mindfulness can be thought of as "a state of active, open attention to the present," according to Psychology Today magazine. 

Gunnia said he practices mindfulness each morning as he sips his morning coffee; for those few minutes, he focuses solely on the drink's aroma, taste and warmth rather than everything else he has happening that day. Mindfulness can manifest in any activity you do, whether coffee-drinking, walking to work or combing your hair. Of course, it can also be practiced through meditation and other more-deliberate exercises. 

Related: Mind Games 7 Reasons You Should Meditate

Practicing mindfulness is thought to be beneficial because it prevents the mind from fixating on the past or the future, a habit often associated with feelings of depression and anxiety, respectively, Gunnia said. "The idea of mindfulness is to build up the muscle to be able to be mindful the rest of the day," he added.

Through mindfulness, people can practice regulating their attention; taking notice of their mental and physical state without being judgemental; and finding appreciation for "the little things in life," according to an article by psychologist Ryan Niemiec published in Psychology Today magazine. Because mindfulness involves "noticing and acknowledging how you're feeling without trying to judge or push away any of those thoughts," its practice can also be incorporated into many forms of psychological therapy, Roubinov said.

Mindfulness is a key aspect of mental health, and refers to the act of being present in the moment rather than thinking about the past or the future.  (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Bad days versus bigger problems

Many people experience dips in their mental health that mental health professionals may not formally diagnose, but these feelings "can still have a significant impact on someone's day-to-day function," Roubinov said. "It's so normal for everybody to have periods from time to time when they're feeling down or feeling stressed," she said. 

When facing a particularly tough time, people may find it helpful to reach out to their social network for a listening ear, Gunnia said. Simply having someone to "validate your emotions" — confirm that your emotions are real and worth noting — can help to lighten one's mental load. When offering emotional support, avoid phrases like "that's nothing to worry about" or "just get over it," he advised.

Friends and families can also help in more instrumental ways, Roubinov added, by running errands, doing laundry, cooking or otherwise taking care of logistical tasks that may weigh on someone's mind. Sometimes, it's difficult to know how to support someone through a hard time. In these situations, you can always ask the person themselves, she said.

While it's perfectly normal to feel low sometimes, when those dark periods drag on for days or weeks, they may be indicative of a larger problem, Roubinov said. 

Related: 11 Tips to Lower Stress

Public perception of mental illness may still be stained with stigma, but the fact remains that mental disorders are incredibly common. In 2018, 47.6 million U.S. adults experienced mental illness — that's about one in five adults nationwide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). About one in six U.S. youth ages 6 to 17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2018. 

Stigma not only taints people's perceptions of mental illness itself, but also warps their thoughts about seeking professional help. According to a 2013 review in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, perceived stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental health stand as barriers to people seeking treatment. These misconceptions and prejudices must continue to be addressed and overcome, Roubinov and Gunnia both noted. 

A common misconception people hold is that their mental health "has to be really bad," bordering on destructive, for them to seek therapy, Roubinov said. This is not the case. "We can even think about therapy as being preventative," she said. In other words, therapy can help address mental health problems before they fester and give way to crises.

What to expect when seeking professional help

When researching a mental health professional to work with, it can be helpful to ask for recommendations from a physician you like or friends who attend therapy, Gunnia said. This can expedite the process of finding a therapist you click with. You also have the option to arrange an informal phone call to get to know the provider and their approach before your first session, he said, and you can always try a few different places to find the best fit. 

The first session serves as a time for the therapist and client to get to know each other and fill out some mandatory paperwork, Roubinov said. The paperwork addresses the client's right to confidentiality and establishes their consent to receive treatment. "You're not committing to anything beyond that first meeting," Gunnia clarified. The therapist will go on to explain their personal approach to treatment and what can be expected from the upcoming session, and then give their new client time to talk about why they came in that day. From there, the two can discuss potential plans of action.

Starting therapy can seem like a long-term commitment, said Roubinov, but "sometimes [it's] just a few sessions to get you over a hump." 

Beyond one-on-one therapy, support groups can also serve as an invaluable resource. A good selection can be found on the NAMI website. The NAMI HelpLine is also available as a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public. The HelpLine can be reached at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org

When it comes to maintaining good mental health, having strong systems of support are key. Even when it feels as though the support systems in your life have given out, there's always someone out there ready to receive your call.  

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, you can call or text The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional resources: 

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.