There's a lot of talk about mental health on university campuses, but what do we mean when we say “mental health?”

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) defines mental health as:

“…the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections and personal dignity.”

Although we may try to define or judge mental health based on the presence or absence of mental illness, it is important to note that these two terms are not interchangeable.

The dual-continuum model of mental health, which is endorsed by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), provides an excellent explanation of how these terms differ.

Mental health continuum

Mental illness occurs on a continuum from showing no symptoms and not having a diagnosis to being diagnosed with a serious mental illness (e.g., anxiety, depression, personality disorder, schizophrenia).

Mental health also occurs on a continuum; one can be in a state of optimal mental health, poor mental health, or somewhere in between. Optimal mental health is characterized by positive emotions, satisfaction with life, and positive psychological and social functioning (e.g. self-acceptance, positive relationships, personal growth).

According to this dual-continuum model, it is possible to have a mental illness and also be in a state of positive mental health. This is likely to occur when the individual is coping effectively, responding well to treatment, and is experiencing fewer symptoms.

At the same time, it is possible for someone who does not have a mental health diagnosis to be in a state of poor mental health. Perhaps the individual is under a great deal of stress, which has had a negative effect on their mood, thinking patterns, and personal relationships.

While not everyone has a mental illness, we all have mental health. It is important to remember that mental health is not static; one's position on the continuum can fluctuate. This means that, like our physical health, we can take steps to improve and maintain our mental health.


Reference for photo: MacKean, 2011. Adapted from: The Health Communication Unit at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario; based on the conceptual work of Corey Keyes.