Differentiating between mental health and wellbeing

Source: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2020/uuk-stepchange-mhu.pdf

By Kieran Balloo

Currently, in the #StudentWellLives project we are grappling with how to define mental health and wellbeing. Often, the terms mental health and wellbeing are used interchangeably, but research suggests they should be viewed as being connected, but conceptually distinct (Keller, 2020). It might be useful to think of wellbeing as a broader concept that encompasses a range of factors experienced at an individual, community and national level.

Simply put, [wellbeing is] about ‘how we’re doing’ as individuals, communities and as a nation, and how sustainable that is for the future. It is sometimes referred to as social welfare or social value.

What Works Wellbeing (https://whatworkswellbeing.org/about-wellbeing/what-is-wellbeing)

Mental health refers to a full spectrum of experience ranging from good mental health to mental illness…. Good mental health means more than the absence of illness. It [is] a dynamic state of internal equilibrium in which an individual experiences regular enduring positive feelings, thoughts and behaviours, can respond appropriately to normal negative emotions and situations and is able to make a positive contribution to their community…. Mental illness [is] taken to mean a condition and experience, involving thoughts, feelings, symptoms and/or behaviours, that causes distress and reduces functioning, impacting negatively on an individual’s day to day experience, and which may receive or be eligible to receive a clinical diagnosis.

The University Mental Health Charter (https://www.studentminds.org.uk/charter.html)

In the #StudentWellLives project, we believe the distinction is helpful because we will be analysing aspects of both wellbeing and mental health as separate constructs. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Measuring National Well-being programme defines individual wellbeing as representing how people feel about:

  • personal wellbeing
  • health
  • relationships
  • education and skills
  • what they do
  • where they live
  • personal finances
  • the economy
  • governance
  • the environment

Using this conceptualisation, aspects of mental health, such as anxiety and depression, could fall under ‘personal wellbeing’ and ‘health’. ‘Personal wellbeing’ also includes life satisfaction, life worthwhileness, and emotions. Other aspects of wellbeing that are likely to be relevant to our project include: ‘relationships’, which covers personal relationships and feelings of loneliness; ‘education and skills’, which covers educational achievement and human capital; and ‘what they do’, which includes work and leisure activities.

In the Next Steps data we are utilising, there are measures of life satisfaction, health, and relationships with others. There are also measures related to young people’s education and employment outcomes (e.g. job satisfaction), which can be seen as aspects of their wellbeing under the ONS definition. Instead of conflating the two terms, we will be able to see how different aspects of mental health and wellbeing are interrelated, which might be valuable when using the findings to identify how best to support differing student needs. For example, supporting students with their feelings of loneliness when they start university might not mean automatically sending them to student counselling, which might be better for dealing with more profound mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

We would be interested to hear about other benefits or disadvantages to separating the two concepts, so please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.

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