There is currently more published information about mental health than ever before, and it has never been so easy to connect with experts, health workers and charities supporting mental health issues. Yet misinformation, stereotypes and stigma still exist, and often people still don’t know where to turn. The problem isn’t a lack of information, but in communicating what information we currently have, and what we need to have. One of the most basic pieces of information would be a clear description of exactly what people mean when they talk about mental health and mental health issues. Definitions are often expressed differently depending on who the target audience is; articles written for a general audience will often focus on a single problem or dysfunction, while medical articles get more of the complexity across. Here are some examples of different online resources, and their definitions.
Mind: “problems that affect they way you think, feel, or behave”.
Wikipedia: a mental or behavioural pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not a developmental or social norm.
BBC Science: symptoms that go beyond typical responses, and are severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function.
Now for the big one, the DSM- IV. As you might expect, this is a comprehensive and rigid explanation:
A clinically significant behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. [This] must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event.
A manifestation of a behavioural, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behaviour (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”
Breaking this down, the DSM requires a mental health condition to be a pattern of symptoms that cause suffering to the person, go beyond culturally normal experiences, and are caused by a biological or psychological difference in that person.
The ICD- 10 definition is a common research basis, striking a good balance between comprehension and simplicity. They define a mental illness as “a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behaviours associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions.”
From Illness to Wellness