This is the translation of my article (https://www.natashodashi.com/chto-takoe-psihicheskoe-zdorovie/) in Russian which in turn was the translation from Polish of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s book «In the Search of Mental Health», published by PWN, Warszaw in 1989.
Kazimierz Dabrowski was my guide to a special psycology. I have learned about this Polish psychologist, psychiatrist and philosopher, well-known in Europe and North America, from the director of my doctoral thesis Professor Maria Szyszkowska. After coping with the new terminology I have realized the inspiring Health Philosophy. I suppose it could be interesting for you to find out what mental health is.
This article is dedicated to general research of mental health definitions of the authorities in times of Dabroski with his comments. This is the abriged first chapter of the book.
1. Mental health is the absence of mental disorder.
This definition presents the opposition of psychological disorders and mental health. It was used by doctors, mostly psychiatrists, for many decades. This point of view has a biopshychic character and requires the preliminary definition of mental health.
As for me the intensive excitability as well as most neurosis are not illnesses, but are the condition for the real comprehensive development and are one of the fundamental conditions of mental health.
Thereby the classification of symptoms of mental disorders and illnesses cannot be the criterion of mental health or illness.
2. Mental health is the integration of mental structures and functions.
According to the studies of Sherrington, Burnham, Konorski and others over the activity of the nervous system, the main quality of the normal mind is integration. For example, a sign of integration is the ability to hold attention and the ability to adapt to the external and internal conditions of the body.
According to American authors, integration in public life is expressed in the consolidation of the group and the harmonious coexistence of its members. And disintegration processes include such positions and processes as children’s behavior in adults: pride, fear, envy, anger, and excessive overwork. Children often show disintegration position: inability to keep attention and concentration, lack of constancy.
In everyday language, such symptoms are expressed in different ways: “give up”, “lose one’s head”, and about integration processes: “pull oneself together.”
However, disintegration changes are essential for development processes. Primitiveness, rigidity, narrowness should be broken down, relaxed so that higher structures appear in their place. Developing mental health means passing through positive disintegration and partial secondary integration to secondary global disintegration.
The continuing state of primary (primitive) integration is considered to be inability to develop, the emotional defect (psychopathy), and mental underdevelopment.
3. Mental health is the hierarchical activity of mental processes under the control of the function of reality.
This is the definition of Pierre Jeanet, a French psychologist and psychiatrist, which he used in his scientific work. The most complete expression of harmonious activity is adaptation to reality. The function of reality is the emotional state of contemplation during the activity and affecting all the other activities if they are present. Janet defines it as the contemplation of ourselves as we are. This is the awareness of our integrity.
One can agree with this definition only partially. I believe that mental health should be understood as the capacity for multilateral development under the control of many functions of reality, in a multi-level system. This, in my opinion, is the necessary condition. A mentally healthy person develops in the direction of higher reality, that is, hierarchically. And visa versa, a person who only adapts to the changing reality does not contribute to his/her mental development, because he/she does not authenticly change his/her function of reality and acts under the influence of the instinct of self-preservation. Understanding health as the ability to mental development, such a person cannot be considered as a healthy one.
4. Mental health is the state of mental equilibrium (homeostasis).
In psychology, especially in developmental psychology, the psychology of morality and values, the concept of equilibrium is not explicitly the same as in biology, physiology, and medicine. This is the state of relative peace with readiness for the adaptive actions towards the changing conditions of life. This is the ambition to fulfill the biological life cycle without any particular stresses and tremors, without excessive energy loss and without the aspirations for creativity, and what is behind this — without reaching the highest levels of development.
According to the principle of mental development — especially creative and accelerated — alongside the processes of inhibition and integration, there is also fundamentally strong and purposeful process, this is the process of positive disintegration, that is, weakening and even breaking the mental structure.
I have already noted many times that health is not possible, especially in terms of creative and accelerated development, without experiences, without mental concussions, without states of mental imbalance, without internal and external conflicts, that is, without depression, anxiety, fear, without obsession, inhibition, aspirations for overcoming oneself, overcoming one’s own psychological type, etc.
Thus, the stable equilibrium is most likely evidence of psychopathic symptoms, and moderate imbalance indicates the person’s mental health.
5. Mental health as the capacity for effective and productive activity.
This definition is peculiar to the American researchers. They proceed from the concept that productivity indicates, on the one hand, the human efficiency, and, moreover, efficiency in a group, and, on the other hand, productivity benefits both the society and the person him/herself.
Mental health as efficiency and productivity concerns mainly the processes in the material context. Considering that this is the only condition of mental health, a few remarks should be made. First, if we accept this condition, it is not basic, but rather auxiliary. Secondly, the very use of the words “effectiveness” and “productivity” as qualities of mental health is some kind of misunderstanding. After all, these concepts are rarely applied to the productivity of emotional, intellectual and physical functions at the higher or the highest level. Normally these concepts are used in professional context.
Can we talk about the productivity of outstanding and brilliant people?
6. Mental health is the expression of the efficient functioning of basic mental functions.
Partially, this definition is related to the previous one, which defines mental health as the capacity for effective and productive actions, so observing these actions, we can evaluate the correct work of mental functions. The correctness of work in this sense does not necessarily depend on creativity, it is often an automatic, memorized phenomenon, which has nothing to do with development, not to mention accelerated development. Therefore, the ability of outstanding, creative people are often evaluated negatively. It is usually considered that they are lazy, strange people who are not adapted to the life in society. It is believed that they lack the function of reality at the level of daily everyday tasks. The term of «basic» mental functions cause even more doubts. In one case, these are the functions of self-preservation, self-defense, in the other — the ability to foresee, creativity, relationships at the level of empathy and, above all, the function of development. If you ask me whether the activity of the main functions will be considered as the sign of human health, I will say no. No, because it doesn’t go about multi-level, that is, with hierarchical development, with values and meaning of life. Single-level activity will never replace the full development. The correct work of the basic mental functions does not contain neither positive development, nor creativity.
7. Mental health is the ability to coexist harmoniously with the environment and to transform it.
This definition shows us that mental health is the ability of a person to satisfy his/her potentially conflicting inclinations harmoniously and find balance instead of frustration. This definition is about a developed personality, which is obviously capable of embodying the conflicting desires harmoniously.
Harmonious coexistence is the ideal to which we aspire, and not the reality itself. We also know that authentic development is accompanied by conflicts and struggles, and constructive assistance with the environment, not to mention its transformation, necessarily involves tension, disharmony and conflicts. Even individuals such as Socrates or Lincoln, who felt particularly responsible for state affairs, often showed the states of imbalance and mental disharmony. This definition contains many positive features, but does not provide the requirement of comprehensive maturity, which is achieved by overcoming many conflicts. In addition, the ability to transform the environment can not only be positive. Negative environmental transformations are the influence of dictators and psychopaths, with threatening consequences.
8. Mental health is the ability to adapt to changing living conditions.
This definition is easily taken for granted, and it also seems so simple. It became common in the USA in the 50s, but still has not lost its popularity. This understanding of mental health is far from the concept of development, it does not have hierarchical and value elements. It expresses one-sided and one-level pragmatism and emphasizes the value of sharp mind in daily life. It expresses the unconscious needs of the majority of society and the inability of a person to create and realize the inner truth, essential, exceptional, personal qualities. Adaptation is a permanent rejection of the moral position, often unconscious, which causes no regrets about it. This adaptation to conditions, fashion, moods and position of the majority, is at the same time the rejection of originality, creativity, authentic development, that is, personality development. This definition is the most popular and common, but as it does not take into account development, it is dangerous for morals and society.
9. Mental health is the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not just the absence of disease.
This definition is adopted by the World Health Organization. Let’s analyze it.
It tends to integrated approach to physical and mental health. However, it lacks in the comprehensive definition of mental health and the development factor. It remains unclear how well-being relates to such necessary phenomena in the person’s life as internal conflicts, pain, suffering, difficult physical and mental periods, such as pregnancy, childbirth, death of loved ones and even creativity. These phenomena, however, are not the evidence of well-being, but also do not indicate mental illness. Is it possible to speak of well-being in the state of experiencing empathy in relation to the suffering of another person? The sensitivity of some individuals to the world tragedies? In the light of such a logic, experiencing a theatrical performance, a book or a painting can also be considered mentally unhealthy, because this is not an example of well-being.
This definition of the World Health Organization does not provide the elements of hierarchy and development, and focuses on the physical balance (in terms of the body), a pleasant self-perception (mental aspect) and conformism (social aspect). It is also not sufficiently accurately stated what welfare is. Even if we replace this term with a state of health, this will not bring any clarity. Well-being in these aspects is very rare, it is rather a periodic quality, and usually for non-developing individuals or poorly developed mentally. A developing person should periodically feel unwell, sad, anxious, depressed, internal and external conflicts. Without these states, the development and expansion of consciousness is impossible.
Author’s understanding of mental health.
My understanding of mental health concentrates on mental health regardless its physical component. But on the other hand, I clearly introduce the problem of development into my definition, and because of it’s versatility and multi-levelness, I thereby include the element of emotional development and the element of values. Thus, I believe that mental health is the ability for multilateral and multi-level mental development.
This versatility and multi-levelness includes all the basic human functions: intellectual, intuitive, strong-willed, etc., as well as moral, aesthetic and social values.
The concepts of multilateralism and multilevelness of mental development are quite common, but thanks to them a fundamental element of versatile development appears.
There is also another, a bit more complex version, which includes my Theory of Positive Disintegration: mental health is the capacity for multilateral and multi-level mental development, which is carried out through mechanisms of positive disintegration, which leads first to partial secondary integration, and then to holistic secondary integration .
I also formulated a broad descriptive definition of mental health — this is the capacity for such development, which is aimed at comprehensive understanding, experience, discovery and creation with each stage of higher hierarchy of reality and values, up to the specific individual and social ideal (personal ideal).
In my definition, conflicting feelings and emotions are necessary for mental development, internal and external conflicts. It also provides the dynamics of development — in experience, at work and in self-discovery.
How does this apply to people, or at least most of them?
Most people have more or less potential for development in the sense of sensitivity, interest and predisposition, and development of the internal mental environment. This potential, even the most insignificant, can be developed, and then the above definitions of mental health can be useful not only in theoretical terms, but also in practical life, moreover it can be understood by the broad public.
The prerequisite for working on the mental development is the ability to measure the development of the hierarchy and goals of emotionality and instincts using the levels of development that are contained in the theory of positive disintegration.
One can reproach me for the fact that such an understanding of mental health is vaid only for the individuals at the sufficiently high level of development, and not for ordinary people. But I am sure they will not be able to develop if they do not have the opportunity to comprehend and study models, examples of clear, specific hierarchies of values that will stimulate development and inspire them. Therefore, I consider my definition of mental health to be correct and fair.
It is also important to note what mental illness in the light of the above is: it is the inability to develop psychologically and the presence of severe chronic involutional and dissolutive symptoms.