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Why public mental health matters

Public mental health is the art and science of improving mental health and wellbeing and preventing mental illness through the organised efforts and informed choices of society, organisations, public and private, communities and individuals.

Mental health is vital to public health; mental wellbeing is profoundly important to quality of life and the capacity to cope with life's ups and downs. It is protective against physical illness, social inequalities and unhealthy lifestyles. There are now a large number of evidence-based approaches to promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental illness, and these are growing daily.

Find out more about the concepts of mental wellbeing

Mental wellbeing is a relatively new concept in public health. It is more than the absence of mental illness, and it seems likely that it is also more than the opposite end of a single continuum from mental illness or disorder as defined by psychiatric diagnosis. (1) (2)

Discussion has ranged, in recent years, over the extent to which mental wellbeing is represented by psychological attributes such as confidence, agency, optimism, good relationships with others - collectively called psychological wellbeing - and by affective or emotional states such as happiness and life satisfaction. (3) (4)

Most now agree that mental wellbeing involves both attributes and states. Other components of wellbeing - physical and social - are very much interconnected with mental wellbeing, so the benefits of mental wellbeing extend beyond their influence on mental illness and its determinants.

Mental wellbeing provides many positive health and social benefits including enhancing resilience and protecting against disease
. As healthy lifestyles and social equality are underpinned by positive psychological functioning, the promotion of mental wellbeing can address both these public health agendas. Wellbeing, including mental wellbeing, is a valuable social goal in its own right and it has become an explicitly declared goal for government in many countries of the developed world.

Because it is a relatively new concept, the evidence-base with regard to determinants, risk factors and solutions lags behind that related to mental illness. In arguing the case for public mental health, statistics relating to mental illness are important.

Mental illness or disorder is very common. It is a prominent cause of disability and represents a huge cost to the health service and economy: find out more about the economic case.

Mental health problems play a part in:

There is a large and growing evidence-base demonstrating effective approaches to the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness.

A small group of public health professionals have concerned themselves with mental health issues for many years, working in particular on improving services, suicide prevention and stigma. However, public mental health will be a relatively new idea to many of those practicing public health, especially the idea that mental health and mental wellbeing should be at the heart of all we do in public health, and that there can be 'no health without mental health.'

Further reading

Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008). Final project report - Executive summary. The Government Office for Science, London

WHO (2004). Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice.

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2010). No health without public mental health: the case for action. Position Statement PS4/2010.


Knifton, L and Quinn, N (eds). Public mental health: global perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press; 2013.

1) Huppert F, Whittington J. Evidence for the independence of positive and negative well-being: Implications for quality of life assessment. British Journal of Health Psychology 2003; 8(1):107-122.

2) Keyes CL. Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2005; 73(3):539-548.

3) Ryan RM, Deci EL. On happiness and human potentials: a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology 2001; 52(1):141-166.

4) Tennant R, Hiller L, Fishwick R, Platt S, Joseph S, Weich S, Parkinson J, Secker J, Stewart-Brown S. The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS):development and UK Validation. Health and Quality Life Outcomes 2007; 5:63.


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