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June 01, 2018 Friday 12:21:09 PM IST


Cover Story

Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists as practitioners often approach mental health in terms of symptoms of mental ill health and the ways and means of removing such symptoms. The School of Positive Psychology criticises this approach on the ground of it being negative, that is, defining the concept of ‘Mental Health’ in terms of what it is not, rather than in terms of the more positive what it is.


Negation of the existence of something is also an approach, but it is a slightly nonstandard route to take without touching the nature and characteristics of the essence of mental health. We need a positive approach explaining the conditions that foster mental health rather than explaining the conditions that result in an outcome called mental ill health.


First, let us look at the symptoms of mental ill health. At one extreme is something beyond the normal range observed in a person, such as violence or aggression beyond the control of self or by others. The manic phase of manic-depressive psychosis, paranoia of both grandeur and persecution, or extreme social extroversion belongs to this excessive category of mental disorders.


The other extreme is a deficiency in activity, such as schizophrenia of various categories or depression. In between these two extremes lie the normal and borderline cases with various neurotic symptoms, including stress, anxiety, or mood changes. What makes a person ‘normal’ is also an issue as ‘normality’ is often defined in terms of socio-cultural standards. What is normal in one society need not be normal in another.




Mental health is to be defined in terms of an accepted concept of normality. What is good for the individual and others around him/her in the long run is one of the essential criteria of normality, devoid of socio-cultural constraints. The fact that certain behavioural aberrations are more pronounced in some communities than in some others, indicate the presence of certain socio-cultural factors associated with mental health or mental ill health.


A closer definition of mental health, therefore, needs to be careful in isolating the socio-cultural factors that influence the concept of normality to make the definition universally applicable.


For the time being, let us ignore the excess-deficient symptoms of mental ill health and focus more on the positive concept of mental health. There are two strong needs of an individual that are universal: first, the need to be comfortable with oneself or continued existence as a happy bio-psycho being (person); second, as a social  being living with several others, the need to attain success in terms of material possessions and positions. The first one is introgenous and the second one is extrogenous.


In Vedic literature, the first one is called shreyas and the second one preyas. In Malayalam, the former is termed nanma and the latter menma. All other needs arise out of these two basic needs, of course, excluding the physiological and safety needs in the need hierarchy theory of Abraham Maslow. Positive mental health is the outcome of happiness or shreyas and the negative mental ill health is the outcome of preyas or materialistic success.


Mental health is defined as a psychological condition of being comfortable with oneself and others, while being productive, creative, and proactive in dealing with tasks, problems, situations, and people. It reflects meaningful and effective negotiations with interpersonal, socio-cultural, and political adjustments beneficial to both the person concerned and others around him, including institutions and communities in the environment.


In other words, a person who is mentally healthy is one who is effective, efficient, competent, compassionate, and impressive in his/her dealings with tasks, problems, situations, and people. It is holistic and positive condition: holistic as it deals with the totality of a person and also with a well-integrated environment; positive in terms of positive emotional experiences of the person in all his/her interactions.


Such a person is likely to be realistic, transparent, assertive, proactive, productive, creative, and sociable with an acceptable leadership style and an orientation of positive attitude towards one’s own self as well as to others. The cognitive component of such a person is competence, consisting of abilities, knowledge, and skills associated with the performative side of life. The emotional side of such a person is positivity, based in trust and acceptance. The social side of behaviour is involvement in group activities, including display of leadership and a drive to make group activities a success.




Life experiences in the family, neighbourhood/community, schools/colleges, employing organisation, and companionship in married life, among other relationships, are all relevant in the formation and maintenance of mental health. What matters is the personal experience of success with happiness at crucial and critical periods in life. Mental health can be fostered, if we can steer away from negativity to positivity by education, counselling, and training.


A society whose adults are mentally sick is likely to destroy the mental health of the new generation; a society that encourages preyas, that is, desire for possessions and positions, is likely to discourage the desirability of mental health. It is in this context that the relevance of the ‘Happiness Index’ of nations is similar to that of the ‘Development Index’ of nations. Netherland, Sweden, Norway, and Bhutan are high on the ‘Happiness Index’ chart.


Kerala is somewhat similar to European countries with respect to the human development index. However, the state may not rank high on the happiness index chart as the incidence of alcoholism and suicide, for example, is relatively high compared to her immediate neighbours.


In other words, the mental health index of Kerala is not likely to be on the higher side. However, detailed studies are required to confirm or deny any statement on the mental health conditions of the people of Kerala. Statistics relating to clinical cases, reported by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, can only be an indirect indicator of the state of affairs of mental ill health.


The present-day educational system does little to bolster mental health as it focusses largely on the cognitive side of the human personality by concentrating on the scheme of studies, syllabi, and examination systems while on the other side, formal education seems to have become an instrument for the satisfaction of preyas alone.

Prof. P. R. Poduval

Prof. Poduval is former Director, School of Management Studies, CUSAT
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