Abstract: Conceptualizing "Mental Health" and Its Relationship to "Mental Illness" (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Conceptualizing "Mental Health" and Its Relationship to "Mental Illness"

Friday, January 13, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Ethan Haymovitz, DSW, Postdoctoral Fellow, Smith College School of Social Work, Philadelphia, NY
Rebecca Zimmerman, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kelly Barrett, MSW, Social Worker, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose:

A single conceptualization of mental health based on empirical research has yet to be adopted by researchers and practitioners. This paper explores how diverse Americans define mental health. The aim of the study was to build a conceptualization of the term "mental health", using qualitative and quantitative methods, on the basis of definitions provided by an ethnically diverse sample of lay-people and professionals.


Concept mapping methods, including multidimensional scaling and hierarchical cluster analysis, were applied to 146 statements generated by 125 participants of diverse American racial and ethnic groups. The resulting concept map was inspected visually, and ratings of importance were analyzed across emergent themes qualitatively and by way of t-test, as well as qualitatively.


Out of the 146 statements, eight overarching themes emerged from multidimensional scaling and hierarchical cluster analysis. Themes include: 1) Well-Being, 2) Balance, 3) Coping, 4) Adaptability, 5) Relational, 6) Self, 7) Lack of Mental Illness, and 8) Physical. T-tests revealed statistically significant differences on ratings of importance for statements emerging within the theme, “Lack of Mental Illness”, from those included within “Well-Being”, “Balance”, and “Coping”. Statements included in the theme with “Lack of Mental Illness” were rated the lowest on average importance scores. The "Self" cluster appeared at the center of the data visualization, suggesting that the American sample believed that the self is essential to the meaning of the construct in question.

Conclusions and Implications:

Understanding that the concept of "Self" is central to Americans' conceptualizing of mental health may help mental health practitioners and policymakers to focus their efforts in delivering targeted mental health interventions. This mixed-method study is consistent with prior evidence that mental health and mental illness might best be considered separate constructs (Westerhoff & Keyes, 2010). A logical follow-up might examine why the concept of "Self" emerges centrally as it would help mental health practitioners and policymakers to focus their understanding of mental health in order to improve mental health interventions.