Mental health - Concepts in mental health

 Mental health

Concepts in mental health

Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, an

d contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.

Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes.

Mental health conditions include mental disorders and psychosocial disabilities as well as other mental states associated with significant distress, impairment in functioning, or risk of self-harm. People with mental health conditions are more likely to experience lower levels of mental well-being, but this is not always or necessarily the case.

Determinants of mental health

Throughout our lives, multiple individual, social and structural determinants may combine to protect or undermine our mental health and shift our position on the mental health continuum.

Individual psychological and biological factors such as emotional skills, substance use and genetics can make people more vulnerable to mental health problems.

Exposure to unfavourable social, economic, geopolitical and environmental circumstances – including poverty, violence, inequality and environmental deprivation – also increases people’s risk of experiencing mental health conditions.

Risks can manifest themselves at all stages of life, but those that occur during developmentally sensitive periods, especially early childhood, are particularly detrimental. For example, harsh parenting and physical punishment is known to undermine child health and bullying is a leading risk factor for mental health conditions.

Protective factors similarly occur throughout our lives and serve to strengthen resilience. They include our individual social and emotional skills and attributes as well as positive social interactions, quality education, decent work, safe neighbourhoods and community cohesion, among others.

Mental health risks and protective factors can be found in society at different scales. Local threats heighten risk for individuals, families and communities. Global threats heighten risk for whole populations and include economic downturns, disease outbreaks, humanitarian emergencies and forced displacement and the growing climate crisis.

Each single risk and protective factor has only limited predictive strength. Most people do not develop a mental health condition despite exposure to a risk factor and many people with no known risk factor still develop a mental health condition. Nonetheless, the interacting determinants of mental health serve to enhance or undermine mental health.

Mental health promotion and prevention

Promotion and prevention interventions work by identifying the individual, social and structural determinants of mental health, and then intervening to reduce risks, build resilience and establish supportive environments for mental health. Interventions can be designed for individuals, specific groups or whole populations.

Reshaping the determinants of mental health often requires action beyond the health sector and so promotion and prevention programmes should involve the education, labour, justice, transport, environment, housing, and welfare sectors. The health sector can contribute significantly by embedding promotion and prevention efforts within health services; and by advocating, initiating and, where appropriate, facilitating multisectoral collaboration and coordination.

Suicide prevention is a global priority and included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Much progress can be achieved by limiting access to means, responsible media reporting, social and emotional learning for adolescents and early intervention. Banning highly hazardous pesticides is a particularly inexpensive and cost–effective intervention for reducing suicide rates.

Promoting child and adolescent mental health is another priority and can be achieved by policies and laws that promote and protect mental health, supporting caregivers to provide nurturing care, implementing school-based programmes and improving the quality of community and online environments. School-based social and emotional learning programmes are among the most effective promotion strategies for countries at all income levels.

Promoting and protecting mental health at work is a growing area of interest and can be supported through legislation and regulation, organizational strategies, manager training and interventions for workers.

Mental health care and treatment

In the context of national efforts to strengthen mental health, it is vital to not only protect and promote the mental well-being of all, but also to address the needs of people with mental health conditions.

This should be done through community-based mental health care, which is more accessible and acceptable than institutional care, helps prevent human rights violations and delivers better recovery outcomes for people with mental health conditions. Community-based mental health care should be provided through a network of interrelated services that comprise:

  • mental health services that are integrated in general health care, typically in general hospitals and through task-sharing with non-specialist care providers in primary health care;
  • community mental health services that may involve community mental health centers and teams, psychosocial rehabilitation, peer support services and supported living services; and
  • services that deliver mental health care in social services and non-health settings, such as child protection, school health services, and prisons.

The vast care gap for common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety means countries must also find innovative ways to diversify and scale up care for these conditions, for example through non-specialist psychological counselling or digital self-help.

WHO response

All WHO Member States are committed to implementing the “Comprehensive mental health action plan 2013–2030", which aims to improve mental health by strengthening effective leadership and governance, providing comprehensive, integrated and responsive community-based care, implementing promotion and prevention strategies, and strengthening information systems, evidence and research. In 2020, WHO’s “Mental health atlas 2020” analysis of country performance against the action plan showed insufficient advances against the targets of the agreed action plan.

WHO’s “World mental health report: transforming mental health for all” calls on all countries to accelerate implementation of the action plan. It argues that all countries can achieve meaningful progress towards better mental health for their populations by focusing on three “paths to transformation”:

  • deepen the value given to mental health by individuals, communities and governments; and matching that value with commitment, engagement and investment by all stakeholders, across all sectors;
  • reshape the physical, social and economic characteristics of environments – in homes, schools, workplaces and the wider community – to better protect mental health and prevent mental health conditions; and
  • strengthen mental health care so that the full spectrum of mental health needs is met through a community-based network of accessible, affordable and quality services and supports.

WHO gives particular emphasis to protecting and promoting human rights, empowering people with lived experience and ensuring a multisectoral and multistakeholder approach.

WHO continues to work nationally and internationally – including in humanitarian settings – to provide governments and partners with the strategic leadership, evidence, tools and technical support to strengthen a collective response to mental health and enable a transformation towards better mental health for all. 

 

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