Mental health

Fact sheet
22 March 2012

Key facts

  • More than 450 million people suffer from mental disorders. Many more have mental problems.
  • Mental health is an integral part of health.
  • There is no health without mental health.
  • Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders
  • Mental health is determined by socio-economic, biological and environmental factors.
  • Cost-effective intersectoral strategies and interventions exist to promote mental health.
  • Mental health is an integral and essential component of health.
  • The WHO constitution states: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
  • An important consequence of this definition is that mental health is described as more than the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.
  • Mental health is a state of well-being 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.
  • In this positive sense, mental health is the foundation for individual well-being and the effective functioning of a community.

Determinants of mental health

  • Multiple social, psychological, and biological factors determine the level of mental health of a person at any point of time.
  • For example, persistent socio-economic pressures are recognized risks to mental health for individuals and communities.
  • The clearest evidence is associated with indicators of poverty, including low levels of education.
  • Poor mental health is also associated with rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, risks of violence and physical ill-health and human rights violations.
  • There are also specific psychological and personality factors that make people vulnerable to mental disorders.
  • Lastly, there are some biological causes of mental disorders including genetic factors and imbalances in chemicals in the brain.

Strategies and interventions

  • Mental health promotion involves actions to create living conditions and environments that support mental health and allow people to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles.
  • A climate that respects and protects basic civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights is fundamental to mental health promotion. Without the security and freedom provided by these rights, it is very difficult to maintain a high level of mental health.
  • National mental health policies should not be solely concerned with mental disorders, but should also recognize and address the broader issues which promote mental health.
  • This includes mainstreaming mental health promotion into policies and programmes in government and business sectors including education, labour, justice, transport, environment, housing, and welfare, as well as the health sector.
  • Promoting mental health depends largely on intersectoral strategies.
  • Specific ways to promote mental health include:
    • Early childhood interventions (e.g. home visits for pregnant women, pre-school psycho-social activities, combined nutritional and psycho-social help for disadvantaged populations);
    • Support to children (e.g. skills building programmes, child and youth development programmes);
    • Socio-economic empowerment of women (e.g. improving access to education and microcredit schemes);
    • Social support for elderly populations (e.g. befriending initiatives, community and day centres for the aged);
    • Programmes targeted at vulnerable groups, including minorities, indigenous people, migrants and people affected by conflicts and disasters (e.g. psycho-social interventions after disasters);
    • Mental health promotional activities in schools (e.g. programmes supporting ecological changes in schools and child-friendly schools);
    • Mental health interventions at work (e.g. stress-prevention programmes);
    • Housing policies (e.g. better housing);
    • Violence prevention programmes (e.g. community policing initiatives);
    • Community development programmes (e.g. 'Communities That Care' initiatives, integrated rural development).

WHO's response

  • WHO supports governments in the goal of strengthening and promoting mental health.
  • WHO has evaluated evidence for promoting mental health and is working with governments to disseminate this information and to integrate the effective strategies into policies and plans.
  • WHO's mental health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) aims at scaling up services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders for countries, especially low- and middle-income nations.
  • Once the Programme is adopted and implemented, tens of millions can be treated for depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, and prevented from suicide and can begin to lead normal lives – even where resources are scarce.
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