What Is Mental Health?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2022 | Last updated: September 2022

Mental health is the range of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that impact your well-being and how you relate to others. Just like physical health, mental health is vital for daily functioning. Good mental health allows you to:1

  • Achieve your full potential
  • Cope with the stresses of life

The range of mental health may vary from person to person. Mental health disorders are health conditions involving:2

  • Changes in thinking, mood, or behavior
  • Performing daily activities

Who gets mental health disorders?

Having a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and is common around the world. Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States have a mental illness. An estimated 1 in 6 American children aged 6 to 17 have a mental illness.2,3

What causes mental health conditions?

Mental illness is not the result of a single event. Doctors believe that genes, environment, and lifestyle interact with life events or situations to cause the development of a mental health condition. A stressful job may be a contributing factor for some, while trauma might be for others. Not all people who have such events or situations develop mental health conditions. If you do have a mental health condition, you are not “broken” and have not done anything wrong.2,3

Common mental health conditions


Depression may also be called major depressive disorder. Depression is more than feeling “blue” or simply sad. Depression is a serious medical condition that affects how you feel, act, and think. Symptoms vary widely and may include low moods, feelings of worthlessness, and hopelessness in an episode that last longer than 2 weeks. Sleep problems are common in those with depression.4

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is anxiety or worry about multiple things, most days, for at least 6 months. Fear and anxiety can cause major problems in life, including social situations, school, and work.5

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person has panic attacks. Panic attacks are brief episodes of intense fear. They may happen right after a certain event or situation makes you feel especially stressed. Sometimes they seem to happen at random.5

The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include:5

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shaking

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which people perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions) and/or experience constant and uncontrollable thoughts or urges (obsessions).6

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that cause severe disturbances in eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. There are 3 main types:7

  • Anorexia nervosa: An intense desire to lose weight by avoiding or restricting food, or by compulsively exercising
  • Bulimia nervosa: Frequent episodes of excessive eating followed by harmful efforts to avoid weight gain
  • Binge eating disorder: Frequent episodes of losing control over eating, usually resulting in high weight gain

Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders

People with disorders within the schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders cannot distinguish between reality and their hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations are when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels things that do not exist outside their mind. A delusion happens when a person has an unshakeable belief in something untrue.8,9

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder (type 1 or 2) involves a fluctuation between mood episodes that last for at least several days, each with either extremely elevated or depressed moods. These elevated moods are called mania. Mania can make a person very active and cause them to feel elated or “high.” It can also cause someone to become more irritable or engage in risky behaviors.10,11

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that may develop following a shocking, scary, or dangerous event or series of events. PTSD may cause severe impairment, recurrent thoughts of the trauma, flashbacks, nightmares, and difficulty performing daily tasks.12

Sleep problems

Sleep problems and diagnosable sleep disorders are more likely in people with other mental health disorders. Some sleep problems may increase the risk of mental illness. Also, many mental health disorders cause sleep problems. Both insomnia (difficulty falling or remaining asleep) and hypersomnia (sleeping too much) are common in people with mental health disorders.13

Substance use disorder

Substance use disorder is dependence or addiction to specific substances, such as alcohol or drugs.14

Personality disorders

Personality disorders are disorders characterized by emotions and behaviors that deviate from the norms of the world around them in inflexible and lasting patterns. These disorders cause impairment in relationships and other critical areas of functioning.15,16

Chronic illness and depression

Rates of depression are much higher in people with chronic illness or disease than in the general population. The reasons for this may include:17

  • Problems managing daily tasks
  • Increased financial strain
  • Chronic pain
  • Feeling isolated
  • Loss of function or ability to work
  • Stigma, when someone views you in a negative way
  • Drugs for treating illness or condition may affect your thoughts and mood

Treatment for mental health conditions

Many mental health conditions are treatable. Treatment for mental health disorders depends on the condition and what is best for each person. Treatment can include:18

  • Medicine
  • Therapy
  • Learning positive coping skills
  • Behavioral change plans
  • Social programs
  • Support groups
  • Hospital admission for daily monitoring and increased care

Any of these treatments may be applied together. There may be more options for you. Though there are no cures for mental health conditions, there are treatment options.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.