This is a field that is actively developing. Continuously increasing knowledge, from basic research in many fields as well as from clinical and practice-based evidence, makes it hard to keep up with terminology refinement, so the best strategy is to keep asking yourself what you mean by different terms, and checking with others as to the way they are using them. In actively developing fields, good collaboration depends more on understanding each other’s terminology than on having a common term.

The term ‘mental health’ is often used to refer to mental illness or disorders (e.g. ‘healthcare’ as the term that’s meant to indicate treating illness and disorders, or ‘mental health problems’), so the term ‘positive mental health’ is usually used in this toolkit. When the term ‘mental health’ is used in this toolkit, it is intended to mean positive mental health. The toolkit section Understanding Mental Health, Illness provides further description of mental health, mental illness and disorders, Addictions, and what is normal. 

Remember in the definition, positive mental health has a number of dimensions. Only one of the dimensions refers to hedonic, pleasure-based subjective feelings. A person has ups and downs, the ultimate success is not unrelieved pleasure (sorry!). A more appropriate focus for success is continuously increasing positive adaptability –a person’s, organization’s, community’s continuously increasing capacity to engage with the world and challenges in productive ways. That means ways that are more and more effective at improving health, growth and/or restoration.

Flowing from the definition provided, positive mental health includes:

    • Feeling good includes feeling satisfied, interested in life and/or happy (one’s internal, subjective feelings of believing you belong in a community, that you accept yourself and that the way society works makes sense to you).
    • Positive functioning includes factors such as achieving one’s goals, making a contribution. It also includes that health can be more than ‘good enough’, and that positive mental health involves engaging with life challenges, learning and adapting continuously and so growing one’s potential. Just as a high performing athlete understands their ‘mental game’ is as important as their technical skills in achieving their desired performance in high-stress situations, so a student might think of developing their positive mental health as life assets in their ‘mental game of life’.
    • Positive functioning results from interacting with one’s environments productively – both being influenced by and influencing them. So positive functioning also includes a positive contribution to one’s family, community and society – in line with one’s gifts and unique perspective. This then is a person’s contribution to building health-enabling environments.

The following seven assumptions provide more depth on this toolkit’s understanding of positive mental health.