There’s been a lot of talk about mental health in recent years, and the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made these discussions more common. Mental health issues are an epidemic all their own, leading to psychological turmoil, chronic physical diseases, and debilitating emotional and financial burdens. But what exactly do we mean by “mental health,” and how is that different from mental illness? Is the mere absence of a mental illness enough to assume you’re at your very best? Psychologist Corey L. M. Keyes tackled these questions and more in the Handbook of Positive Psychology's fourth chapter, entitled “Toward a Science of Mental Health”; we’ll break it all down for you here.
Keyes argues that mental health and mental illness are not opposite ends of the same spectrum—mental health isn’t just the absence of mental illness, and vice versa (Keyes). He supports this argument with studies that demonstrate modest (but not strong) negative correlations between measures of subjective well-being and scales of depression; if well-being and depression were perfect opposites (i.e., if mental illness and health were on the same continuum), one would expect a stronger negative correlation between them. Keyes claims that genuine mental health consists of two criteria: the absence of mental illness, and the presence of high-level emotional, psychological, and social well-being. He explains that there is a complete and incomplete version of both mental health and mental illness, which means there are four possible states a person could be in: complete mental health, incomplete mental health, incomplete mental illness, and complete mental illness (Keyes).
Keyes calls these four states “flourishing,” “languishing,” “struggling,” and “floundering,” respectively (Keyes). Neither flourishing nor languishing people have a recent mental illness, but flourishing people have high levels of well-being whereas languishing people’s well-being levels are low. Both struggling and floundering people have a mental illness, but struggling people manage to report moderate to high levels of well-being whereas floundering people experience low levels.
With the social distancing and isolation of the current world we live in, it’s more important now than ever to prioritize mental health and boost your levels of well-being, even if you don't have a mental illness. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about mental health and mental illness, but with more research and greater access to the right resources, it can be possible for us all to flourish.
Keyes, Corey L. M. “Toward a Science of Mental Health.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 30 July 2009, www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195187243-e-009.
Last Fact Checked on June 1st, 2021.