Anthropology: What Is This Concept We Refer to as Mental Health?

Mental health. It is becoming a bigger topic every day, and it is simply inevitable to educate yourself about it. In recent years, there has been increasing acknowledgement of the important role mental health plays in achieving global development goals, since mental health goals are included in the Sustainable Development Goals.

There is a giant difference between the number of people who need help and those who can access it. There are by far not enough professionals and access to the system is too small. Hence, it becomes even more important to educate yourself and do everything you can to help yourself and those around you to decrease their risk of developing mental health illnesses.

What is mental health?

Wood block reading "mental health"
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In general, mental health is a combination of our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Hence, it inevitably affects the way we think, how we feel and act. Moreover, the state of our mental health can influence how we react to stress, respond to others and our decision-making. There is no specific period in our lives during which mental health is more or less important; it always is.

Mental stress and illnesses in any of the previously mentioned dimensions can influence our quality of life, productivity, and well-being.

How common are mental illnesses?

Mental illnesses are mostly way harder to detect than physical illnesses, which can make people assume that the prevalence is lower than it actually is. Truth be told, mental health problems can happen to anyone and everyone.

More than 50% of people are or will be diagnosed with any kind of mental illness or disorder in their life. Numbers and figures are different for all countries, so we will take a closer look at the United States and take them as an example.

Mental illnesses are one of the most common health issues Americans have to deal with. One out of five people will experience mental health disabilities in any given year. Moreover, one in five children are now (or have at some point) been dealing with seriously weakening mental illnesses.

In general, one in 25 Americans has to live with a mental health illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. I know, one in 25 does not sound like much. However, the United States has 329.5 million inhabitants, which makes the number of people dealing with these illnesses an unbelievable 13.180.000.

What affects our mental health?

Three signs on a metallic fence reading "Don't give up.", "You're not alone.", and "You matter."
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There are different factors which influence our mental health. They don’t affect every person the same way, but there is scientific evidence for those to do so for most people.


On one hand, there are biological factors, such as our genetics and our brain chemistry. Basically, things we absolutely have no natural control over. It is also possible that a family history of mental health problems can influence your risk of suffering from one (or the same) as well.

Life experiences

Furthermore, there are our life experiences. These include trauma and experiences of abuse. These are obviously possible at any point in time but can be even more damaging during our younger years. This is due to us being in more sensitive learning phases during our earlier life periods and us being more sensitive to some sorts of stimuli. Additionally, we don’t have the broadest skill set to deal with traumatic experiences.

These life experiences are not limited to trauma and abuse, they can also include any experiences related to other medical conditions (e.g., cancer, diabetes, etc.) of yours or those related to you.


The risk of developing a mental illness can start to increase as soon as you step on this earth. Maternal stress and neglect increase the risk of damaging cognitive impairment. Furthermore, social influences like social stress, abuse, and bullying heighten your chances of mental health problems.

Moreover, socioeconomic inequality, migration, and experiences of social inequality may increase the risk of suffering from some mental disorders.

Drug use

Some mental illnesses are linked to substance abuse like, for example, cannabis, and alcohol. The outbreak of schizophrenia and psychosis is associated with the use of cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamines. Furthermore, the intake of cannabis stands in correlation to depression and bipolar disorder.

Chronic disease

The chances of suffering from depression and anxiety increase with a diabetes disease and HIV. Heart diseases, respiratory conditions, arthritis, cancer, and suffering a stroke all increase the risk of developing mental illnesses in comparison to the general population.

Types of mental health diseases

Card with symptoms of mental health illnesses like trauma, abuse, fear, and anger
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Mental health diseases are widespread but you can divide them into the following seven categories. To get more in-depth knowledge, we’ll go over them and the specific disorders they include and what defines each category.

Mood disorders

The main underlying feature of this category is a disturbance in someone’s mood. You can further categorize them into the following five: depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, substance-induced, due to another medical condition, and not otherwise specified.

Depressive disorders severely and negatively affect the way you think, feel, and act. Some of the symptoms include feeling sad, loss of interest and energy, and feeling worthless or guilty.

Bipolar disorder is also called manic depression, which is a very unstable emotional condition, which is marked by frequent changes of high moods (mania) and low moods (depression). This disease is linked to extreme, intense, and disturbing emotional states.

Mood disorders can be substance-induced if the outbreak of the disorder is causally linked to the intake of psychoactive drugs. Symptoms are widespread and can have manic, mixed, and depressive symptoms.

Furthermore, mood disorders may link to other medical conditions a person suffers from. These include neurological, metabolic, gastrointestinal, endocrine, cardiovascular, pulmonary, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Lastly, there are mood disorders which don’t quite fit any of the previously mentioned categories.

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are characterized by uncontrollable and disproportionate feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety. These feelings can be so restrictive to the point that they impair social, occupational, and personal functions. Physical symptoms include restlessness, chest and abdominal pain, and an increased heart rate. These symptoms do, however, vary from one person to the next.

We divide anxiety disorders into the following sub-types: generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, selective mutism.

Personality disorders

Personality disorders can be recognized due to long-term maladaptive patterns of behavior, cognition, and inner experience. These are shown in different contexts and differ from one’s usual behavior. These pathological patterns develop early on, are very inflexible and lead to severe distress and disability. In the DSM-5, which is the standard classification of mental disorders, there are ten different types: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive.

Psychotic disorders

People who suffer from a psychotic disorder have trouble determining what around them is real and what is not. They may suffer from delusions and hallucinations. Further symptoms include insomnia, social withdrawal, and incoherent speech.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are mental health disorders which are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors. Those pathological eating behaviors negatively affect one’s physical and mental health. And there’s more than “just” anorexia.

Binge eating is a disorder where one eats large amounts of food in a short period of time and way past the point of being full. Anorexia nervosa is when a person has a fear of gaining weight and restricts food while increasing physical activities. Bulimia nervosa is when a person eats large amounts of food (binge) and then tries to rid themselves off it (purging).

Pica is when a person eats non-food items. The rumination syndrome is when one regurgitates undigested foods. Lastly, ARFID is when a person has a selective and very restrictive food intake. They can not explain this behavior without any signs of the previously mentioned eating disorders, and it does not stem from medical or belief reasons. It stems from a negatively affected relationship with food.

Trauma-related disorders

Exposure to traumatic events and experiences causes some individuals to develop pathological thoughts and behaviors. These include signs of intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations, and hyper-arousal symptoms. Trauma-related disorders include disinhibited social engagement disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, and adjustment disorder.

Substance abuse disorder

One suffering from a substance use disorder (SUD) persistently keeps on taking drugs (including alcohol) even though they feel substantial harm and negative consequences.

Mental health warning signs

barrier tape reading "Caution"
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Mental health issues are very variable and can sometimes be very hard to detect for any layman. Who knows when ‘being sad’ is still ‘being sad’ and when it crosses the line to becoming depressed? There are countless symptoms connecting to mental health issues, and they are not always specific to only one of the several types of disorders. However, if you find yourself feeling them or somebody close to you, talk about it. Talk about it, and it is never the wrong choice to consult a professional.

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and usual activities and showing less interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Having low or no energy
  • Feeling numb or like nothing matters
  • Having unexplained aches and pains
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
  • Yelling or fighting with family and friends
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others
  • Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work / school

What helps strengthen your mental health?

Wallpaper which reads "Community is strength. Be strong. Let's look out for one another."
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There are many things you can do to help decrease your risk of developing a mental health disorder. Just to give you a great starting point, here’s six things you can start doing today, to help your overall mental and physical health.

  • Good nutrition: Your brain is basically an organ like any other, and it obviously requires different amounts of nutrients like carbs, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and water. If you educate yourself on balanced and nutrient-dense diets, you can help your brain work more efficiently and more healthily.
  • Stress relief: Yes, small doses of stress can be beneficial and take your performance to a higher level, but that’s not what I mean with this bullet point. Long-term stress is what I’m talking about. Persistent stress is dangerous and increases your risk of depression and anxiety. Serotonin, adrenalin, and cortisol affect areas of your brain which regulate your memory and emotions. Stress can change these interactions in a negative way.
  • Good sleep: Mental health problems can lead to insomnia or other sleep disorders. But what some people don’t consider, the interaction is also possible the other way around. Insomnia can increase the risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
  • Physical activity: People with mental health disorders experience a higher chance of disability and mortality. Physical activity releases endorphins and can heighten your mood, which can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Social interaction: Social isolation is a major trigger for mental illnesses, which is why it is necessary for you to have supportive social interactions.
  • Kindness: Being kind means doing something for yourself and others, which is solemnly motivated by your desire to make a positive impact. Kindness acts as an antidote to isolation and brings a sense of belonging.

Furthermore, if you, or somebody you know, has any trouble with their mental health, know, it is never – and I repeat, NEVER, something to be ashamed of, just like consulting a professional isn’t.

The thing about mental health

Our society often stigmatizes people who suffer from a mental illness. Social stigma is the “disapproval of, or discrimination against, an individual or group based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society“. And all that this social stigma does, is worsen the state of the affected.

It is a vicious circle, because they need social support and interaction to get better (which is what everybody should want for them as well). But when they make their state official, some treat them as if they were “crazy” and “abnormal”, which only makes their state worse, since they grow ashamed of it, avoid social contact, and often don’t want to get the treatment they need.

Your mental health is never something to be ashamed of. When we have a physical injury, we consult a doctor. Then why don’t we consult a professional when we have a mental injury?

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