Blog Center for Community Health Partnership & Research Behavioral/Mental Health

Moving beyond mental illness to mental health and wellbeing

Written by Vetta Sanders Thompson, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion & Equity at the Brown School; and co-director the Center for Community Health Partnership and Research at the Institute for Public Health

When the conversation moves to mental health, there is a tendency to think about diagnostic categories. This is largely the result of an emphasis on mental illness in public funding for the mental health system. Given limited dollars and resources, we focus on those with critical needs, individuals with serious mental illness. Diseases such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and major depression rightly receive our attention because of the toll that these diseases take on lives and resources. Reflect on the fact that major depression is one of the leading causes for years lost to disability.1 In addition, estimates of total costs to treat newly diagnosed individuals living with schizophrenia (privately insured) range from $248.8 million to $515.4 million.2


Public attention is often focused on mental illness, particularly trauma, in the wake of crises. These crises may include natural and environmental disasters, domestic and community violence, near fatal illness, and traffic accidents, as well as rare events such as mass shootings and terrorism.3 However important these issues are, and make no mistake they are critical to address in any effort focused on the wellbeing of society, the almost sole focus on this area over time erodes our understanding and ability to act in support of the other critical area along the mental/behavioral health continuum. This area is simply positive mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health is more than the absence of illness and it is more than the ability to survive another day. Mental health and wellbeing are the ability to live, work and enjoy recreation in a community where one has a sense of belonging and support, and the ability to make meaningful contributions.4

When we live in a state of wellbeing, we flourish.

We are confident and feel able to do many of the things that we want, while realizing that there will be challenges. Mental health and wellbeing affects every aspect of our lives, from the way we interact with others to the choices that we make. It affects our ability to cope with those every day ups and downs, stressors, challenges, and pains that we can expect to experience. The development and maintenance of mental health and wellbeing begins at birth and continues through every stage of our lives. It is therefore critical that we explore what we know about mental health and wellbeing and begin to implement strategies to facilitate it at multiple levels of experience.

Mental health and wellbeing is not a toxic stress or a trauma informed discussion, although given the continuum of mental health these issues are definitely related. Mental health and wellbeing is much more comprehensive than the other two issues. Mental health and wellbeing is a state that we can develop as individuals and support as communities. What we know suggests some actions.5

As human beings, we are social and we need to have a meaningful connection to others. It is important that we take more time to develop and strengthen family connections. Time spent with children allows them to build bonds with us that will facilitate their ability to relate to others. In addition, we need a strong social support network that includes friends, as well as work colleagues. We need a place to share.

Human beings thrive when they are able to make contributions to their family and community.

To do this, we must have supportive environments, resources, and opportunities to learn from infancy throughout our adult lives. Learning is a pathway to developing and improving our capacity to adapt, cope, and contribute to a dynamic and changing world. We can contribute and build our social networks by volunteering and being willing to support and serve others.

Finally, we must develop an attitude and intent to be aware of what and who is around us; showing gratitude for the material and immaterial resources, large and small wonders, expressions of connection and support that are a part of our lives. We are happier and approach life in a more positive way when we can see what is good, beautiful and nourishing to our spirits in the world all around us.


1National Institute of Mental Health (2016). U.S. Leading Categories of Diseases/Disorders. Retrieved November 9, 2016.

2Wilson, L.S., Gitlin, M., & Lightwood, J. (2011). Schizophrenia costs for newly diagnosed versus previously diagnosed patients. AJPB, online Apr. 5, 2011.

3 McNally, R. J. (2009). Can we fix PTSD in DSM‐V? Depression and anxiety, 26(7), 597-600.

4 World Health Organization (WHO). (2016). Mental health: a state of well-being. Retrieved November 9, 2016.

5 Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). What is mental health? Retrieved November 9, 2016.