The Mental Health Continuum

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  • 0:04 Mental Health Continuum
  • 1:22 Three Mental Health Sections
  • 3:30 Internal Factors
  • 4:53 External Factors
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Being classified as mentally healthy is not so cut and dry. There is a large spectrum, or continuum, of mental health on which one can fall. In this lesson you'll learn the definition of mental health continuum and the internal and external factors that can affect mental health.

Mental Health Continuum

Amy is a college student who is generally happy and positive. She has healthy relationships with others, is able to cope with daily stressors, and regularly attends classes. She does well on projects and exams to achieve her goal of one day becoming a doctor.

Berta is also a college student, but she struggles with panic attacks on a weekly basis. She suffers from social anxiety and therefore isolates herself from others, holding her back from forming and keeping healthy relationships. She sometimes even skips classes due to her anxiety.

A psychologist looking at these two cases wouldn't just say that Amy has good mental health and Berta does not. Amy's mental health could change if she were to lose a loved one to death. Berta's social anxiety can possibly be cured with proper coping methods. In other words, Amy and Berta's mental health isn't fixed. It can fluctuate depending on internal and external factors in their lives. This is why mental health is seen as existing on a continuum instead of being a mere classification of mentally healthy or mentally ill.

The mental health continuum is a range of mental health with mentally healthy at the left of the spectrum, mental health problems in the middle, and mental disorder at the right end of the spectrum. A person fluctuates on the continuum depending on internal or external factors.

Three Mental Health Sections

The mental health continuum can be visualized as a line divided into three sections: mentally healthy, mental health problem, and mental disorder.

1. Mentally Healthy

Found in the first section are people who are mentally healthy. Mentally healthy people can be characterized as emotionally stable, self-respecting, goal-oriented people. More specific examples of how you'd describe mentally healthy people include the following:

  • Generally happy and content with their lives
  • Being able to form and maintain healthy relationships with others
  • Skilled at problem solving and tackling life challenges
  • Able to cope with most stressors and negative emotions that they encounter on a daily basis

2. Mental Health Problem

In the middle section of the continuum are the people with mental health problems. Perhaps they are not able to cope with certain stressors, and it is causing them to lose sleep and feel a little depressed. People who have mental health problems have some symptoms of disorder that are moderate and/or temporary but affect their life in some negative manner. Some of these moderate problems can include:

  • Suffer from moderate and/or temporary symptoms of a depression, anxiety, panic, a loss of appetite or insomnia
  • May experience stress in daily lives but not know how to handle it: the stress may lead to negative symptoms such as isolation or use of alcohol or drugs to numb the pain

And finally…

3. Mental Disorder

In the last section of the continuum are the people with mental health disorders. A person with a mental disorder has many factors that impact their normal functioning and tend to need serious or longer treatment. These factors include the following:

  • Has a cluster of negative symptoms that significantly impact their functioning
  • Has difficulty forming or maintaining healthy relationships with others
  • Typically needs mental health treatment or therapy
  • Usually suffers from more chronic or longer-lasting symptoms than just a mental health problem
  • May have depression or panic attacks that are seriously debilitating
  • Could even suffer from more severe symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations

Internal Factors

Of course, a person can move along the continuum in one direction or the other, just like a bead does on an abacus. For instance, an adult who suffered from a severe alcohol use disorder (mental disorder end of the continuum) could over time become a sober, happy, and productive member of society (mentally healthy). There are many factors, both internal and external, that can affect a person's movement along the mental health continuum.

Internal factors are either biological or psychological in nature. Biological factors can include:

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