What is mental health? A high level overview

Categories: Making Myndplan
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There is a lot more conversation happening about mental health, but most people are still a bit baffled when asked to define just what it means. Generally speaking, mental health refers to a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. Unlike most other aspects of bodily health that involve our limbs and organs, it involves the mind, whose main job is to help us think, feel, and carry out behaviors.

As with other aspects of your health, mental health can be influenced by attributes and features that are passed down in your family. It is also influenced by the resources available to you, such as those offered by education and wealth. It depends a lot on what you learn from your experience doing things and relating to other people. Good mental health usually requires understanding and knowledge about yourself and your abilities and limitations, not to mention insight into how the mind works. In addition to looking at how effectively you think, or how good you feel, it is measured by real-life functioning, such as how you cope with stress, work effectively and productively, relate and get along with other people.

What is Mental Illness?

While we all want to have good mental health, sometimes we fall short of this goal. Mental illness is a term that is often used to refer to conditions or disorders that go with unhealthy thinking, feeling, and behavior. This reflects the fact that mental illness is revealed by symptoms that undermine our ability to think effectively, that cause emotional suffering, or result in problems in our relationships. Often, the same symptoms tend to cluster together and are relatively common. This has given rise to diagnostic systems that name and describe disorders such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

Why label disorders at all?

A diagnosis is a group of symptoms that tend to occur together. Many systems have been developed to give these clusters a name. This is practical – it allows people to have conversations about shared experiences that give us difficulty, making it more convenient to look for possible causes, and helps us test out solutions, treatments, or fixes. If we didn’t have a common way of describing mental health problems or disorders, there would be no way to scientifically explore potential causes and cures. However, there is more than one way to label psychological problems. Here is a summary of three of the most prominent approaches:

DSM5 & ICD10

DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders and has been referred to as the bible for listing and defining types of mental illness in North America. ICD10 is the 10th version of the International Classification for Diseases, and though it is very similar to DSM5, the categories and rules often differ. Both manuals tend to assume a disease model of mental illness, meaning that it is seen as caused by structural or biological changes in the brain. Myndplan Guides help you compare your results to DSM5 categories and points out some important differences from ICD10.


RDoC stands for Research Domain Criteria and is the system used by most researchers in North America. It was developed by the National Institute of Health to address problems with DSM5 – mainly that DSM5 tends to clump lots of symptoms into often arbitrary collections that are hard to objectively measure. RDoC breaks problems down into broad domains of interest. Within each domain are constructs, and these, in turn, contain very specific elements. The system taken together as a whole is called the Research Domain Matrix. The Myndscan is broken down into RDoC categories, which helps us relate your scores to most of the current research on mental illness, its causes, and its treatments. For this reason, we sometimes refer to the Myndscan as a Matrix Personality Inventory.

Transdiagnostic Models

Recent work such as David Barlow’s research into anxiety disorders suggests that many diagnostic categories are overly specific, and most problems fall into only a few very broad categories. For example, DSM5 diagnoses like panic, social phobia, and generalized anxiety appear to share a common set of symptoms and respond to many of the same treatments. Barlow suggests that transdiagnostic categories can be treated using a Unified Protocol – a common set of science-based methods that work for most people. Consistent with this idea, the Myndscan includes factor scores, which offer five broad groups of symptoms that describe most of the common problems people encounter.

Which approach is the best?

Most professionals tend to prefer using just one of these models. Psychiatrists and psychologists are often attracted to DSM5 and ICD10 because these sort of diagnoses are required by their work, and payment often hinges on using the appropriate “code”. Researchers prefer RDoC because the primary agency that grants funding require a matrix approach. Lots of other therapists like transdiagnostic approaches because they seem to reflect the reality on the street – that there is a lot of overlap among mental health problems and effective treatments work for a lot of apparently different problems. When it comes to consumers – the people who are treated by professionals or studied by researchers – the truth is that most haven’t heard of any of these approaches. What they need most is help understanding how to translate how each of these systems applies to their own experience. Only then can they decide which is the most helpful in explaining things.

What sort of things cause mental health problems?


Family history has been found to exert a strong influence on the expression of many mental health disorders through genes that are passed on from one generation to the next. Genes influence your brain chemistry and brain connectivity – the way your brain develops networks among its parts to help you think, feel and cope.

Life Experience

Positive experiences like having a safe, nurturing upbringing or a supportive social network can promote better mental health. Negative things like family violence, neglect, chronic stress or trauma can contribute to more symptoms of mental illness. Your life experiences mold who you are as a person, can turn on or shut down genes that influence how you cope, and alter the way your brain’s -networks determine how you think, feel and behave.

Individual Differences

Your unique psychological makeup can exert a strong influence on your mental health. Each person will develop preferences and traits that are distinct. Different people may rely on different coping methods, hold different assumptions about how much control they have over their lives, or have different values. People even differ to the extent that they are aware they have a problem! Your ability to think requires you to make assumptions about how life works and apply these assumptions to everything you do. If your assumptions are inaccurate or don’t mesh with those of society, you can end up with lots of unpleasant symptoms.

Which one is it?

People often behave as though only one of these three explanations accounts for most mental health problems. However, the fact of the matter is that biology, life experience, individual differences and a host of other things usually combine in determining how we think, feel and behave.

The future?

More recently, the field of neuroscience has helped bridge the gap between different causal explanations, since how the many different parts of your brain communicate within and between each other reflects some fundamental biological workings, is modified by life experience in very predictable ways, and can account for most individual differences. When used poorly, neuroscience-based explanations just confuse and befuddle people. But when it is used properly, neuroscience can make sense out of just about anything in the human experience. For this reason, Myndplan strives to translate neuroscience into plain language to help you understand your symptoms. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. When people are shown some of the typical pathways that help explain what is happening in their personal experience, what needs to change, and how to make that change take place, understanding often follows. This sort of insight is often the key to making real change.

Learn about some of the common myths about mental health