Is mental health a spectrum?

Building your understanding of what mental health is can help you take control of your mental health and wellbeing.

Written by spunout


Mental health is a term we hear every day, but it can often be misunderstood.

People frequently use the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ as if they mean the same thing, however this is not actually the case. While mental health is connected to mental illness, mental health is a much broader topic which covers your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, your ability to solve problems and achieve goals, your ability to connect to other people, and your ability to understand the world around you. Taking time to learn more about what mental health means and the different factors that can affect it can help you to live a happier and healthier life. It can also help you to recognise when you might need some extra support for your mental health and make it easier to find the right support if you need it.

What is mental illness and how does it differ from mental health?

Mental illness is the general name given to a collection of conditions which can negatively impact your mental health and is normally used when referring to conditions that have been diagnosed by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. There are a wide range of different mental health conditions, each with different sets of symptoms. In general, these symptoms can affect how you think, how you feel, and how you behave. The symptoms of mental health conditions can be distressing and make it more difficult to enjoy your life and work towards your goals.  Common mental health conditions include depression and anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. While mental health is a much broader topic which includes a wide range of both positive and negative experiences, understanding mental illness is an important part of understanding mental health in general.

Can you experience symptoms of mental illness without having a mental health condition?

While mental illness is frequently used to describe mental health conditions, you can also experience milder forms of mental health symptoms without having the condition itself. These symptoms can often emerge during challenging periods in your life, and while they are not as severe as a long-lasting mental health condition, they can still be distressing and disruptive to the person experiencing them.  Also, while they usually pass with time, they can sometimes lead to the development of a mental health condition in the future if you do not get the support you need.  It is important not to minimise the impact that these milder mental health challenges can have on your life. However, it is also important to understand that experiencing one or two symptoms is not the same as having a diagnosed mental health condition, which is a more severe and long-lasting form of mental illness.

If you believe you may have a mental health condition, talking to your GP is a good first step. They can put you in contact with a mental health professional who is trained to work with you to explore what you have been experiencing and help you work out a plan for supporting you and your mental health.

What does positive mental health look like?

Describing positive mental health, sometimes called mental wellbeing, can be difficult and it looks slightly different for each person. Positive mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness. You can think of positive mental health as a mental state that allows you to enjoy activities you take part in, work productively, cope with normal stresses in life, and realise your own potential. Positive mental health often gets less attention in our society than it should.

It’s a popular myth that having positive mental health is about being happy all the time. You can still have positive mental health despite living with a mental health condition or other mental health challenges. Everyone encounters stressful situations and negative emotions from time to time.  Having positive mental health will help you to continue to function in the face of stress and cope with difficult feelings in healthy and productive ways. This ability to bounce back from stressful experiences is called resilience.

Thinking of mental health as a spectrum

One of the biggest myths about mental health is that everyone can be divided into two separate categories; those who are mentally healthy and those who are mentally ill. Not only is this belief untrue, it can also be dangerous as it increases stigma towards people with mental health conditions. A more positive and accurate way to think of mental health is as a spectrum of experience, ranging from excellent mental health at one end, and severe debilitating symptoms at the other end. In between these two extremes is a spectrum of experiences ranging on the negative side from more frequent or severe symptoms like suicidal thoughts or panic attacks, to milder symptoms, to more positive experiences on the other end, like feeling calm and happy, and functioning well.

Thinking of mental health in this way can be helpful for a number of reasons. The spectrum focuses on the positive side of mental health, as well as the negative side and everything in between. The spectrum also captures how complex mental health can be, highlighting that just because someone isn’t experiencing a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean their mental health is flourishing. Finally, it shows that mental health is something that affects all of us, whether or not we’re currently experiencing mental health difficulties.

Can you move along the mental health spectrum?

No matter where you fall on the mental health spectrum, your place is not set in stone. Depending on your circumstances, you are likely to move up or down the spectrum throughout your life. You may have periods of poor mental health which can be brief or more long-lasting. Mental health difficulties rarely have one cause, but stressful life experiences like trauma, losing a loved one, or being bullied can cause you to move towards the more negative side of the spectrum. On the other hand, positive experiences like having good social support from friends or family, getting a new job, or building your self-esteem can help you to move towards the healthier side of the spectrum.

Sometimes, you may need to get some external help from a mental health professional to get back to a more positive point on the spectrum. If you start to experience mental health difficulties and get the help and support you need at the right time, it can prevent you from developing a mental health condition further down the line.

Can you have positive mental health if you live with a mental health condition?

Having symptoms of a mental health condition can have a significant impact on your state of mind and make it more difficult to function and achieve your goals. Because of this, these symptoms are often associated with the more negative side of the mental health spectrum. However, plenty of people living with mental health conditions achieve positive mental health by getting support and treatment that allow them to effectively manage their symptoms.  Positive mental health doesn’t mean that you never have mental health difficulties. Many people achieve good mental wellbeing and live the life they want to live while still living with mental health conditions.

Caring for your mental health

No matter where you currently find yourself on the mental health spectrum, you can always take steps to improve or maintain your mental health. Taking good care of your mental health is an ongoing process that will help you to stay at the positive end of the mental health spectrum and prevent the development of severe mental health difficulties.  There is a wide range of support and information available that can support you on your mental health journey.

Even if you are happy with your mental wellbeing, it is important to set some time aside to maintain it. Read about some easy steps you can take to support your mental wellbeing on an ongoing basis.

If you are experiencing mental health issues and feel like you need some extra support, speaking to your GP can be helpful.  Find out more about speaking to your doctor about a mental health concern.

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