A Brief Introduction to Mental Health
Mental Health Defined
According to the World Health Organisation, the term "mental health" refers to an individual's emotional capacity to successfully adapt to the stressors of everyday life1 Although mental health involves the mind, the term differs from "mental disorder" because while everyone has mental health, not everyone will experience a dysfunction in the mechanisms of their brain2. Due to mental health referring to a state of well-being, not everyone will have good mental health while also not necessarily experiencing a mental disorder. Instead, they may develop "mental health problems", which are considered as issues resulting from distressful situations. For example, the death of a loved one may cause temporary grief and sadness but may not result in the development of major depressive disorder (MDD).
Stigma and Mental Health
Stigma is considered a social construct and is defined as negative beliefs about a characteristic that an individual has3. Often, stigma leads to discrimination and maltreatment towards those experiencing it, which is detrimental when it prevents people living with mental illness (PLWMI) from seeking assistance. Many PLWMI will internalise the stigma they receive from the outside world, and this is known as self-stigma. It is essential that society, including PLWMI, speak openly about their experiences because this will enable the normalisation of mental health and mental illness.
Stress and Trauma
"Stress" refers to the mental distress that individuals develop when reacting to their environment. This happens to almost everyone and often does not indicate a mental disorder or mental health problem. Stress can be a normal response that enables one to cope with the issue at hand but stress as a response is only beneficial when it is short-lived4. When someone who is experiencing stress does not cope with the stressful situation in an appropriate manner, the stress can become abnormal and therefore negatively impact the mental and physical health of an individual. Trauma differs from stress due to the intensity and impact of the event. Trauma is the response to distressing events that prevent the body and mind from coping. It is considered as always being harmful because it shifts all cognitive, emotional, behavioural and physical systems within the body.
Trauma and stress are relevant to the South African context because they affect both the individual lives and communities in South Africa. For example, some South Africans may have chronic stress about unemployment while also experiencing violent, traumatic events intheir communities. Experiencing a reality like this increases the risk of developing mental illnesses5.
Positive Mental Health
It is common for people to avoid dealing with their stress or trauma due to not knowing how to cope or finding the trauma too painful to confront. Due to this, individuals often partake in unhealthy behaviours, which in turn impact their mental health. Although these mechanisms may seem adequate at first, they often lead to detrimental consequences that worsen mental health6
There are ways we can improve our mental health so that we partake in beneficial coping strategies – this is known as "positive mental health" and refers to an individual's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. There are three major domains that can enable positive mental health, namely; physical health, social connection and mindset. Physical health is vital and involves improved eating, sleeping and exercising because these three activities help develop and maintain good mental health. Connecting with friends and family can also improve mental health. This is because communication helps relieve stress and allows for a healthy way of releasing worrying thoughts. Finally, finding a sense of purpose can help improve mental health functioning. Engaging in activities that benefit others, such as caregiving, volunteering and caring for animals, can help bring meaning to life.7
World Health Organisation (2014). Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response. Geneva: WHO
Teen Mental Health. (2017). Mental Health And High School Curriculum Guide. Washington State: Teen Mental Health.
Knifton, L., & Quinn, N. (2013). Public Mental Health: Global Perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
The Mental Health Foundation. (2020). How to Manage and Reduce Stress. UK: The Mental Health Foundation
Seedat, M., Van Niekerk, A., Jewkes, R., Suffla, S., & Ratele, K. (2009). Violence and injuries in South Africa: prioritising an agenda for prevention.
Seedat, M., Van Niekerk, A., Jewkes, R., Suffla, S., & Ratele, K. (2009). Violence and injuries in South Africa: prioritising an agenda for prevention. The Lancet, 374 (9694), 1011-1022.
Munnik, LO., & Davies, B. (2020) Mental Health Pack. South Africa: South African History Online.