spectrum of mental health

Mental Health Is More Than Just Wellness or Illness

A common misconception about mental health care is its framing as treatment people receive for a mental illness. This is an outdated idea. Some people with no mental illness may have mood fluctuations or worries strong enough or persistent enough to disrupt their typical daily lives. In a similar vein, people suffering from diagnosed mental health disorders might still experience days, weeks, or months when their mood is calm and positive. 


This suggests that mental health is less a binary state of illness versus wellness and more of a spectrum across which people move throughout their lives.  

Just as the physical health community is starting to recognize a spectrum of physical wellness – spanning a range, for example, from excellent metabolic health to prediabetes, to diabetes, to metabolic syndrome – so too is the mental health field acknowledging that mental health has shades of grey.


The mental health continuum


Research by mental health practitioners has further defined four clear categories of mental health that blur into each other, as mood, thoughts, and mental wellbeing changes.


spectrum of mental health

(Image courtesy of Delphis Learning)


Individuals whose mental health falls in the crisis category feel excessive negative emotions ranging from anxiety to depression. This heavy mental state disrupts their daily eating, sleeping, and socialising habits and even makes them susceptible to physical illness. It is important to seek help in this state as soon as possible. 


Those who are ‘struggling’ tend to feel more emotional symptoms like anger and sadness. These symptoms bleed into their routines, leading to restless sleep, fatigue, pain and poor mood. Their work/school lives tend to suffer, making them retreat away from other people.


It is important for struggling individuals to seek help from a mental health professional to keep their mental state healthy.  Seeking help from supportive friends and family while working with the professional is also very helpful.


People who are ‘surviving’ feel irritable due to poor energy levels caused by stress. This makes people reduce social activity. In this case, sleeping well, exercising, and eating a balanced diet is important. It is also helpful to find coping strategies to ease the stress.


Individuals who are ‘thriving’ tend to have good basic habits related to sleep, exercise and diet. They also have the time and energy to pay attention to their interests, and have a realistic view of themselves and the world around them. 



Excelling means a person is joyful, high energy, and living life to their fullest potential. They’re in a general state of ‘flow,’ that is, fully enthusiastic and engaged in, with an energetic focus and enjoyment of life as a whole.


Another way of looking at mental health as a spectrum is via the  ‘Languishing vs. Flourishing’ model. In this model, people who do not feel mentally well but don’t show clear or enough symptoms of illness are near the ‘Languishing’ side of the spectrum. Meanwhile, people who feel more content are on the ‘Flourishing’ side.


spectrum of mental health

According to research by sociologists, the people most likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for depression and anxiety disorders within a decade are not people with current depression/anxiety symptoms – it is people who are languishing. Languishing people, who lack well-being and cannot function at full capacity, are six times more likely to develop clinical anxiety or depression than their flourishing peers. 


This is partially because people who are mentally languishing often don’t consider their struggles serious ‘enough’ to warrant seeking mental health support.


Recognizing where our mental health falls


Finding our current niche on these two possible spectrums can be difficult. The Excelling-In Crisis model provides clear descriptions. But the Flourishing vs. Languishing continuum is less clear. 


When we are feeling suboptimal or stuck in a rut, we can look for these signs of languishing in our lives. 


Do we have any symptoms associated with anxiety or depression, even just one or just mildly?

Knowing the basic symptoms of anxious and depressive moods can help us spot any changes in that direction. Paying attention to the intensity of these changes, too, is also necessary in order to gauge whether it’s just a bad day or a pattern.


How long have we been feeling suboptimal?

Feeling mentally unwell for a few days may be related to a passing stressor. But if our well-being remains reduced for a lengthy period of time or we have recurring periods of low mood, it’s not a bad idea to seek help. Staying aware of the number of times/how long a feeling lasts can help us confirm whether we’re languishing. 


Are we tapping into our social support?

Beyond awareness and care, leaning on family members, friends, and colleagues for an extended period of time can be a sign of languishing. At this point, we can consider asking for their take on our well-being. Oftentimes, the perspective of a trusted friend or family member can be the push we need to seek help. 


Mental healthcare for the full spectrum


Checking up on mental health the same way people check up on physical health is becoming more and more critical. While this may not mean a visit to a psychiatrist, many mental healthcare providers or individuals offering support systems can help. 


For people who feel they are languishing or struggling, psychologists provide the best aid. These mental healthcare providers frequently work with individuals who do not have mental illnesses but face higher-than-average rates of distress or exhaustion.


Psychologists are trained to use psychological theory and various therapeutic techniques to explore the root causes of stressors. They can then help people develop the skills to take control of their moods and move towards a healthier life. 


Seeking help for a state that doesn’t qualify as an illness may make little sense. But think of it as  an investment in future health. Just like how people with prediabetes can make changes that delay or prevent the onset of diabetes, a little mental health care now can pay off in the future. 



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