Could mental health be compared to physical health? Could it be a continuum?

What is physical health?

Prior to the progress made by modern medicine, we would consider someone to be physically healthy if they were not stricken by an illness. Nowadays, all the progress and technology has changed our definition of physical health. It ranges from total fitness to being unfit (due to several aspects such as no physical activity, nutrient and diet, drugs, cigarettes and alcohol consumption, self care for example looking after oneself when we suffer from a cold, rest and sleep). But when we are physically unfit, it doesn’t mean that we suffer from an illness. Of course, the longer we carry on our unhealthy habits, the more likely it is that we will develop an illness such as high cholesterol, cancer or diabetes.

What if the same applied to mental health?

The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life

In a previous post we described mental health as ‘state of well-being’. Dr Keyes (2002) describes it as a ‘syndrome of symptoms of positive feelings and positive functioning in life.’ He reviewed  and conceived of dimensions and scales of subjective well-being  as mental health symptoms. A diagnosis of the presence of mental health is described as flourishing, and the absence of mental health is characterized as languishing.

When we observe the picture below, we can see that, just like with physical health, it is possible to have a high mental health or flourishing and a low mental health or languishing.  We can go up and down the continuum depending on various factors but this does not mean that we are suffering from a mental illness or disorder. In fact, it is actually possible to be diagnosed with a high mental illness or disorder but to be flourishing at the same and to be able, as WHO states, to ‘realize our own potential,  cope with the normal stresses of life,  work productively and fruitfully, and be able to make a contribution to our community’. The stories shared by the students I interviewed for my forthcoming book certainly support this idea (more on this in another post).

It is also possible to be languishing and have a mental illness or to be flourishing with a low mental illness or no mental illness and finally to be languishing with a low or no mental illness.

According to Keyes, Mental health is more than the presence and absence of emotional states. Emotional well-being is a cluster of symptoms reflecting the presence or absence of positive feelings about life. Symptoms of emotional well-being are ascertained from individuals’ responses to structured scales measuring the presence of positive affect (e.g., individuals is in good spirits), the absence of negative affect (e.g., individual is not hopeless), and perceived satisfaction with life.

I personally find Dr Keye’s work and his two continua extremely empowering. I absolutely love the words ‘flourishing’ and ‘languishing’. This is the reason why I chose to use the term ‘flourishing’ in my book title.

What are your thoughts on this? Please do comment below.

Image source: Corey Keyes.


Flourishing Education