What Is Mental Wellness?

Janet Coburn
4 min readNov 6, 2022

Seeing that I spend so much time in my blog discussing mental illness, a friend challenged me to say what “mental wellness” looks like. I’ve decided to take a crack at it.

First, I have to say that I’m not sure mental wellness really exists. Everyone (at least everyone I know) seems to have assorted neuroses and minor phobias. These are generally subclinical, though, so they don’t really count as mental illness. Anyone with them, therefore, could be defined as mentally well, I guess.

But really, who is mentally well? A lot of people — maybe most — believe they are mentally well. Not all of them are, given that many people with mental illness can be in denial. Of course, mentally well people can also be in denial about various things. They could be in denial about their own personality traits or those of their friends and loved ones. They may, for example, overlook the fact that they are quick to take offense or that Aunt Nancy is very judgmental. Those may be character traits or even character flaws, but they aren’t mental illnesses.

I have a mood disorder myself, so I’m particularly attuned to how people deal with their moods. Everyone has them. Let’s consider depression. Everyone feels depressed from time to time. (There are people who insist that they are constantly positive or at least aspire to that state, but I do believe that in their heart of hearts they occasionally feel down when no one’s looking.) The hallmark of clinical depression is how long it lasts and to whether it descends at random on a person who has no “reason” to be depressed. But how long is “too long”?

I would guess that people who are mentally well seldom experience more than a few days to a week of depression, unless they are experiencing particularly — well, depressing — circumstances, such as not getting a job or being rejected by a romantic partner.

The time limit criterion breaks down in the case of the death of a loved one. Grief takes as long as it takes, and depression is often a component of grief. My mother-in-law, for example, suffered such grief after her husband of 50+ years died that she was virtually incapacitated for months. And her depression continued for some months after that. Yet I would not say that she was mentally ill. To me, she still fit in the category of mentally well. Reactive depression is different from clinical depression.

I would say that one definition of mental wellness is the ability to cope. With most things. For the most part. Most of the time. I know that sounds wishy-washy, but the fact is that no one, mentally well or not, copes well with everything all of the time. It’s just not in human nature. I think of it this way — just as it’s said that you have a drinking problem when your drinking causes problems (financial, legal, relationship, or whatever sort of problems), you have a mental problem if your lack of coping causes you problems in the same areas. Certainly, mentally well people can get overwhelmed at times by the demands that life places on them. And some people with mental illness can cope relatively well. I like to think that I do, now that I’m reasonably stable on medication and with therapy.

I’m starting to get to the point where I say that someone who is mentally well is simply someone who is not mentally ill. But that’s not really a good answer.

I can say that mental wellness is not a matter of being “shiny, happy people.” Everyone’s life is filled with trials and darkness as well as joy and light. Everyone struggles at some time. But not everyone is mentally ill. So, the question really becomes not what is the definition of mental wellness, but what the definition of mental illness is. We have the DSM, but it’s made up of descriptions rather than true definitions. And you get into some gray areas. Are personality disorders mental illnesses? (I don’t know.) Is autism a mental illness just because it’s listed in the DSM-V? (No. Just no.)

So, to the person who challenged me to say what mental wellness is, I would ask in turn what your definition is. Does anyone else have a better idea of what mental wellness means? I’d love to hear it.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.