Troubling Definitions of ‘Mental Health’

Troubling Definitions of ‘Mental Health’

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Lately thinking over dialogues I have been observing and participating on twitter, online and in practice has led me to the conclusion that there is a significant socio-political problem at the heart of ‘mental health’ practice. This comes from an assumed idealism of what constitutes ‘mental health’ itself. Mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes 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” (World Health Organisation, 2013).

Perhaps on the face of it this positive spin on what constitutes good ‘mental health’ may seem benign and aspiringly inclusive. I find it question-begging. Shouldn’t we all wish to ‘work productively and fruitfully’ and ‘contribute to our community’? Shouldn’t we all wish to realize our potential? And it’s in reflecting upon the superficially desirous goals that I strike upon some potentially stony ground. If mental health is about realizing potential, getting on with life and being a contributing citizen – to paraphrase the definition – then what if my circumstances are such that I am obstructed from attaining any or perhaps all of these? Am I thus devoid of a state of mental well-being as a result? Are these truly necessary conditions for flourishing mental-well-being? If so then what of those who are for whatever reason unable to deal with the stresses and strains of day-to-day living and contribute to their national insurance contributions?

I had a troubled phase of my life (in the mid-latter part of my 20’s) where I was deemed unfit to work and signed off sick. This was because of my ‘mental health’. Already we are in some a kind of tautological trap before we’ve even got started. What sense does it make that I can be deemed ‘unfit for employment’ by virtue of my mental health that is defined as partly as a capacity to contribute to working life? Excluding me from work on these grounds is excluding me from a component of activity that constitutes my mental health! How do I regain this part of my mental health and be seen as ‘fit for employment’ despite my mental health if being in employment is considered to be a necessary feature?

Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. Looking at research into retirement indicates that we are treading some very swampy ground here. On one hand some research recently published by the Institute of Economic Affairs demonstrates that retirement increases the chances of suffering from clinical depression by 40% and the chances appear to increase the longer you spend in retirement (Sahlgren, 2013). This research isn’t the last word on the matter. A cohort study of people working for Electricite de France (EDF) looked at the annual trend in reported mental fatigue, depression or physical fatigue over the seven years before and the seven years after retirement. It found reductions in depressive symptoms and mental and physical fatigue comparing the year before with the year after retirement. This led to the conclusion that retirement is related to improvements in well-being (Westerlund et al., 2010). So we have conflicting evidence – some suggesting that being out of work contributes to a healthier lifestyle and better mental health and another, equally credible that it leads to a deterioration.

This suggests to me that a serious danger to guard against are adopting ways of working that map goals and outcomes that perhaps generalise well to larger populations (and are the output of research) without care and attention, unthinkingly, to the individuals with whom we are working. Whatever ‘mental health‘ is will differ significantly from person to person and will vary through time – what affords my mental health now is not the same as 20-odd years ago. So for example with a client I worked with in a community service as a CMHN (community mental health nurse) her physical disabilities precluded her from paid employment (as deemed by her and the health and social care organisations). Thus for her mental health defined as necessarily being constituted out of working contributions was pretty toxic and irrelevant. Instead her mental health was living well and having control of her life within the infrastructure of services that provided her with care. She thrived from having support that she could flex around her – being more supportive at certain times, and stepping back with confidence when she was feeling more capable of self-support. For her skills of being able to differentiate between the two and communicating this level of support need accurately – and for that to be heard – scaffolded good ‘mental health’. She felt a sense of mastery and satisfaction from being able to direct her own care as it fluctuated over time.


Sahlgren, Gabriel, (2013), Working Longer, Live Healthier: The relationship between exonomic activity, health and government policy, [Accessed on 17/03/2014].

Westerlund H, Vahtera J, Ferrie JE et alEffect of retirement on major chronic conditions and fatigue: French GAZEL occupational cohort study. British Medical Journal 2010; 341:c6149

World Health Organisation, 2013, Mental health: a state of well-being, [Accessed on 17/03/2014].