Understanding Mental Health: The Meaning and Importance Explained 

By Bryn Durocher

Mental health has been described in various ways. People have unique views about what “mental health” is for them, stemming from their own education, experiences and cultures. 


Defining Mental Health


You may hear mental health described as a lack of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and otherwise. This is one definition. Fusar-Poli and colleagues (2020) argue that the absence of mental illness does not necessarily equal good mental health. There are other factors that cause people to not feel good. For example, problems at work, problems with family and friends, personal fears, lack of self-fulfillment, and more.


Mental health can also be an emotional state that relates to influential factors in our environment or ourselves. Elements in our environment include the things around you. Elements within you include the genes that you inherit from your parents. These external (outside) and internal (inside) factors, as we call them, might include biological (genetics and nature), psychological (emotional, intellectual) and/or social influences (relationships, belonging). (Manwell et al., 2015).


The definition of mental health may include words such as “autonomy” or “control” (Manwell et al., 2015). Autonomy is the capability to act and have control of your actions and body. Control is similar, but broader. It can include your ability to function and create change in your everyday life (Manwell et al., 2015). Mental health is often said to involve your ability to utilize your functions, such as socializing and performing hobbies, and abilities (Bhugra et al., 2013).


Managing emotions, performing social roles and duties, having successful relationships, coping and being able to do positive actions (such as self-care) are also seen as indicators of good mental health (Bhugra et al., 2013). But do not be overwhelmed; no human can be perfect and happy all the time, and that does not mean your mental health is poor. 


Let us now go back to what contributes to mental health. This will help us in better understanding how mental health is created and how it changes. 


Earlier, we mentioned biological, psychological and social elements. These may contribute to good mental health, or poor mental health. Let’s go through a couple more examples of the categories, as reviewed on WebMD’s Causes of Mental Illness (2023).


Biological influences:

-Substance abuse such as alcohol and drugs

-Poor nutrition including lack of nutrients or vitamins

-Poor physical health


Psychological influences:


-Loss, for example the death of a parent



Social influences:

-Social expectations such as beauty standards




All of these points (and more) play a role in mental health, and cause it to fluctuate or change.


Why it is important to know about mental health 


Physical health has been highlighted in many different campaigns, including anti-smoking advertisements. But why is mental health important?


For one thing, mental health can actually affect your physical health, as stated by the World Health Organization. It can interrupt your sleep, cause fatigue, stress and headaches. Severe mental health problems can even lead to physical illnesses. The Canadian Mental Health Association (2008) states that individuals with depression symptoms say that they face three times as many chronic physical conditions. Chronic, in this case, meaning that it lasts for a long time or happens over and over. 


Furthermore, good mental health allows you to cope with any problems in your life (Plumptre, 2023), without feeling overwhelmed from other stressors. When your brain is in a good state, it is able to think clearly and process issues and stress. 


A positive self-image is another aspect of good mental health (Plumptre, 2023). When you are feeling bad, you are more likely to feel shame and guilt, whether it is towards yourself, how you are feeling or towards the stressors of life. A positive self-image is important for your confidence and sense of worth. 


When you are feeling good, you may be able to provide more support to family and friends (Plumptre, 2023). Instead of focusing on your own problems, mental health allows you to feel inspired towards helping others. It gives you more room in your brain to think towards people that are important to you.


And not only that, but you have more room to focus on work, school and projects. A healthier mind leads to better productivity and therefore better quality work (Plumptre, 2023). Getting rid of poor mental health is one less distraction in your everyday life. Furthermore, individuals dealing with mental illness are at a higher risk of facing poverty, lack of employment, lack of stable housing, and social isolation (CMHA, 2008). 


All of this is good knowledge to have. Knowing why mental health is important and can help you to recognize risk and protective factors.

What are risk and protective factors? They are things in your environment that are more likely to either protect or hinder your mental health (SAMHSA, 2019). They might be from your childhood, as childhood is a very vulnerable period that affects the rest of your life through good and bad experiences, or they might be aspects of your life that exist now. An example of a protective factor includes having attentive parents; parent-child relationships are very important to a child, and children with loving parents have a better chance of positive mental health (SAMHSA, 2019). Another example would be access to resources such as schools and religious buildings. You could research Brofenbrenner’s model, if you are interested in the effects of institutions and protective factors. Risk factors could be racism, poverty and violence (SAMHSA, 2019). Luckily, protective factors work against risk factors (SAMHSA, 2019). The more, the better.




A little stress can be healthy: it allows you to grow and become strong mentally. Yet overall, your quality of life will get better when you focus on your mental health (Plumptre, 2023). It is not something that you can push aside or ignore, because it affects you each and every day in countless ways. Socially, psychologically and emotionally, mental health is extremely important. 


Bhugra, Till, A., & Sartorius, N. (2013). What is mental health? International Journal of Social

Psychiatry, 59(1), 3–4. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764012463315

CMHA Ontario. (2008). Mental Health. CMHA.

Fusar-Poli, Salazar de Pablo, G., De Micheli, A., Nieman, D. H., Correll, C. U., Kessing, L. V.,

Pfennig, A., Bechdolf, A., Borgwardt, S., Arango, C., & van Amelsvoort, T. (2020). What is good mental health? A scoping review. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 31, 33–46.

Manwell, Barbic, S. P., Roberts, K., Durisko, Z., Lee, C., Ware, E., & McKenzie, K. (2015). What is mental health? Evidence towards a new definition from a mixed methods multidisciplinary international survey. BMJ Open, 5(6), e007079–e007079. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2014-007079

Plumptre, E. (2023, February 15). The importance of mental health. Verywell Mind.

Risk and protective factors – SAMHSA. (n.d.)

WebMD. (n.d.). Causes of mental illness.