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Mental Health

Personal well-being, characterized by self-acceptance and feelings of emotional security.

After decades of concentrating on mental illness and emotional disorders, many psychologists during the 1950s turned their focus toward the promotion of mental health. Attempts to prevent mental illness joined the emphasis on treatment methods, and promotion of "self-help" in many cases replaced the dependence on professionals and drug therapies. American psychologist Gordon Allport (1897-1967) viewed the difference between an emotionally healthy person and a neurotic one as the difference in outlook between the past and the future. Healthy people motivate themselves toward the future; unhealthy ones dwell on events in the past that have caused their current condition. Allport also considered these qualities characteristic of mentally healthy individuals: capacity for self-extension; capacity for warm human interactions; demonstrated emotional security and self-acceptance; realistic perceptions of one's own talents and abilities; sense of humor, and a unifying philosophy of life such as religion.

In the United States, the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 attempted to localize and individualize the promotion of personal well-being. Community mental health centers were established for outpatient treatment, emergency service, and short-term hospitalizations. Professional therapists and paraprofessionals consulted with schools, courts, and other local agencies to devise and maintain prevention programs, particularly for young people. Halfway houses enabled formerly ill patients to make an easier transition back to everyday life. Youth centers provided an available source of counseling for jobs and personal problems. Hot lines became staffed 24 hours a day in attempts to prevent suicide and child abuse.

Aided in large part by these community mental health centers, mental health professionals have strived to reduce the severity of existing disorders through the use of traditional therapies, the duration of disorders that do occur, and the incidence of new mental illness cases. In addition, attempts have been to decrease the stigma attached to mental illness by making mental health services more commonly available. Self-help strategies have also played an important role in the mental health arena. People with particular anxieties are encouraged to reduce them through training. For example, people afraid to speak in public are encouraged to take classes to help them cope with their anxiety and overcome it so that it does not interfere with their personal or professional lives. The proliferation of self-help support groups are also outgrowths of the efforts to personalize, rather than institutionalize, mental health care. People who participate in such groups not only learn to cope with the stresses that erode their wellbeing, they also receive the social support thought to be equally important in building strong mental health.

Further Reading

Hergenhahn, B.R. An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaDiseases, Disorders & Mental Conditions