What is Mental Health?

July 22, 2023
June 2, 2023

We’re big fans of definitions at Inner Workout. Partly because of personal experience, my mom started her career as an English teacher. My childhood was filled with trips to the giant dictionary in our dining room whenever I wasn’t sure what something meant.

We also care about definitions because the world of well-being and personal development is filled with buzzwords. Different people, organizations, and pieces of content can use the same terms and mean wildly different things.

So it probably comes as no surprise that we’d dedicate a post to exploring the definition of mental health.

Why we need to talk about mental health

The Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN conducted a survey in which 90% of those surveyed said that the United States is in a mental health crisis.

I agree. And I believe that working with a shared definition of mental health makes it easier for us to support mental health, both personally and societally.

What is mental health? A definition

At Inner Workout, we use the World Health Organization’s definition:

Mental health is a state of wellbeing, in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

I appreciate this definition because it expands our perspective of what contributes to mental health and offers checkpoints for us to evaluate the state of our mental health.

For the rest of this post, we’ll break down this definition of mental health, sharing resources and reflections to support your mental health journey.

Mental health and well-being

Let’s start with “state of well-being.” At Inner Workout, we talk about Five Dimensions of Well-being: physical, energetic, mental + emotional, wisdom, and bliss.

You’re better able to support—and seek support for— your mental health when you understand how you’re currently relating to each dimension.

Here are resources for understanding your well-being:

Mental health and realization

Now, let’s look at the “realizes his or her own abilities” part of the definition.

It’s one thing to be able to do something, another to be good at doing something, and something entirely different to have the capacity to do something.

And the honest truth is that most of us aren’t honest with ourselves—let alone others—about our abilities or our capacity.

It looks like:

  • Downplaying our contributions
  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Saying yes even when our schedule is already overflowing
  • Brushing off compliments
  • Focusing on our weaknesses without acknowledging our strengths
  • Staying in situations even when we know there’s a misalignment
  • Recreating “how things have always been done” without considering what works for us

Call to Reflection - Mental health journaling prompts


Which of the above descriptors rings true for you?
What would shift if you were honest about your abilities and capacity?

Stress, productivity, and mental health

The next piece of WHO’s definition of mental health that I’d like to call out is this one:  “can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively.”

Stress is a normal part of the human experience. While there are steps we can take to reduce our stress, getting rid of stress completely is an impossible goal.

It’s fitting that the definition of mental health places stress and productivity so close together because many of our clients experience stress about their productivity.

They’re worried they’re not getting enough done. They’re worried they’re not working in the most optimal way possible, and this mindset spills over into their self-care, their inner work, and their leisure.

But there’s another perspective. Did you know that fertile is a synonym for productive?

Productivity isn’t simply about getting things done, it’s about creating an environment that allows you to bring your best to your personal and professional life sustainably. True productivity allows you to thrive.

Call to reflection - Mental health journaling prompts

What “shoulds” about productivity leave you stressed out?
How can you expand your idea of what’s productive?

Mental health and community care

There’s one more piece of the WHO definition of mental health I’d like to explore:  ”is able to make a contribution to his or her community. “

At Inner Workout, we often say that self-care is not solo care. Humans thrive in community.

Whenever I reflect on the concept of community, I come back to three beliefs that shape my approach to being a community leader and a community member. I’ll share them below along with a couple of reflection questions.

1. Community is a choice. Is your community participation shaped by convenience, choice, or obligation? How does that impact your experience of your communities?

2. Community is an exchange. What are you exchanging within your communities (e.g., resources, energy, time, money, care)? How do you feel about the exchanges?

3. Community comes together. How do you gather with your communities? How is power shared within your communities?

Bonus! Here are three questions you can ask to make your community care more effective.

A version of this post first appeared as a series in our Self-Care Sundays newsletter.