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What is mental health, and what are mental health problems?

In this step, lead educator Dr Asim Yusuf explains what we mean by mental health, and what it means to have a mental health problem on this course.
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When we ask ourselves the question of what mental health is and therefore what mental health problems are at one level, this seems like quite a straightforward question. At another level, it’s actually quite complicated. We’re dealing here with the brain, and the brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. The mind relates to the brain in some way. So when you say mental, we’re talking about the mind as opposed to specifically the brain. But clearly, there’s a very close interaction between the two. We’ve got two words here. Mental and health. Let’s deal with health first. What do we mean by health? Again, from one perspective it’s quite straightforward. When doctors talk about health, or illness.
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they usually are talking about a particular organ or tissue and something going wrong with it. Another way of defining health, however, is simply a subjective sense of well-being. I feel well, therefore I am well. And then we can look at it from a third perspective, which is the question of function. Is this part of us working in the way that it is supposed to work? We know what our kidneys are supposed to do, and when they’re not doing that, there is a problem with the kidneys. The kidneys are not healthy. So when we talk about mental health problems, we need to understand what health is. And here we are defining health fairly straightforwardly as a subjective sense of well-being.
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An absence of distress. But also an absence of dysfunction. So that is to say that the mind is working properly. A mental health problem is when those things are not there
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What is the mind then? The mind is what we mean when we say I. It’s the sum total of our memories. Hopes, fears, beliefs, emotions, experiences. Sometimes we call this the self, the soul, the psyche. It’s difficult to define, but at the same time, it’s something that we just know intuitively. So mental health, therefore, is a subjective sense of holistic wellbeing and the absence of an emotional or psychiatric distress. What then, is a mental health problem? Well, a mental health problem is the absence of mental health. It’s the presence of subjective, emotional or psychological pain, distress or dysfunction. So states like anxiety, depression and so forth are considered to be mental health problems.
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Once they’ve reached a certain degree of intensity. Now, the principle here is the more complex a thing is, the more likely it is to go wrong. And there is nothing more complex than the mind. So in terms of understanding a mental health problem from the perspective of the functioning of the mind, we need to understand what the functions of the mind are. To reason, to hold beliefs, to process experiences, to respond to situations, to control the actions of the body, to remember, to predict. Now, mental health professionals will sometimes categorize the many, many types of mental health problem that you can have into a number of different sections or a number of different categories. We sometimes talk about mood disorders.
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So when your mood goes very, very low or very, very high for sustained periods of time. Anxiety disorders, well there are a number of different types of those, some of which we’ll talk about as the course goes on. Disorders of how we perceive reality. So psychosis, where you might have hallucinations or delusional beliefs and so forth. There are some problems that relate to our memory, our ability to recall things, age related problems like dementia, but other ones as well. On the other side of that, you have developmental disorders like learning difficulties, autism, ADHD and so forth. Then there are more specific disorders.
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So, for example, disorders of your how you perceive your own body, believing that you are too fat when everyone else says that you’re actually very, very thin. Anorexia or eating disorder. There are disorders that relate to addiction to substances. And then there are a category of disorder that relates to how we relate to the world around us, respond to situations in a more broad or general way. These are sometimes called personality disorders. Now, we will address some of these during the course as we go along, but not all of them because there are quite a few of them.

In this video, Dr Yusuf explains what is meant by mental health and mental health problems on this course.

Mental health includes a subjective sense of wellbeing, an absence of distress, and an absence of dysfunction: mental health problems occur when one, some, or all, of these things are absent. He tells us that “there is nothing more complex than the mind” – which makes identifying the causes of mental health problems challenging. Dr Yusuf then lists some common groups of mental health problems.

Over to you

What does Dr Yusuf’s explanation of mental health problems add to your existing understanding? What, if anything, would you add to this explanation?

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Understanding Muslim Mental Health

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