Definitions – Mental Health and Wellbeing
As the University Mental Health Charter notes:
“The language of mental health can often be shifting, nebulous and confusing. Terms such as ‘mental illness,’ ‘mental health problems’ and ‘mental health difficulties’ can be used as if they have different meanings or as if they mean the same thing. ‘Mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used synonymously but, within different theoretical frameworks, may represent completely separate concepts (1).”
Not only can this confusion result in lack of clarity, it can also lead to faulty assumptions. For example, a perception that wellbeing derives only from pleasure and the avoidance of pain or difficult emotions, could lead to the assumption that students should not be placed under academic pressure in order to avoid any stress. This toolkit does not adhere to this view. For the purposes of clarity and consistency, we will follow the definitions provided within the University Mental Health Charter.
Mental health refers to a full spectrum of experience ranging from good mental health to mental illness.
Good mental health means more than the absence of illness (3). It will refer to a dynamic state of internal equilibrium (4) in which an individual experiences regular enduring positive feelings, thoughts and behaviours, can respond appropriately to normal negative emotions and situations and is able to make a positive contribution to their community.
Mental illness will be taken to mean a condition and experience involving thoughts, feelings, symptoms and\or behaviours, that causes distress and reduces functioning, impacting negatively on an individual’s day to day experience and which may receive, or be eligible to receive, a clinical diagnosis.
Mental health problems or poor mental health will refer to a broader range of individuals experiencing levels of emotional and\or psychological distress beyond normal experience and beyond their current ability to effectively manage. It will include those who are experiencing mental illness and those whose experiences fall below this threshold, but whose mental health is not good.
Wellbeing will encompass a wider framework of which mental health is an integral part, but which also includes physical and social wellbeing. This uses a model provided by Richard Kraut (2), in which optimum wellbeing is defined by the ability of an individual to fully exercise their cognitive, emotional, physical and social powers, leading to flourishing.
Student Wellbeing will adopt the general definition of wellbeing above, but we recognise that, in addition, students’ engagement with academic learning is a key component part of their experience and makes a significant contribution to their wellbeing.
The focus of this resource will look beyond the elimination of poor mental health and wellbeing and explore ways that curriculum can positively enhance the wellbeing of students on the holistic model described above.
Hughes G, Spanner L. The university mental health charter. Leeds: Student Minds. 2019.
Kraut R. What is good and why. Harvard University Press; 2009 Jul 1.
Brody EB. Mental Health: More than the Absence of Illness. 1982
Galderisi S, Heinz A, Kastrup M, Beezhold J, Sartorius N. Toward a new definition of mental health. World Psychiatry. 2015 Jun;14(2):231.