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Mental Health Challenges

Mental health is as variable and individualistic as physical health. It is something most people aspire to but few people are able to maintain throughout a lifetime.  More often than not, people struggle to stay mentally healthy through trying times in their lives.  Thus, as this chapter addresses the various ways that poor mental health may affect learning, readers will likely recognize experiences they or someone they know have experienced at one time or another.

In trying to define mental health, most experts describe what mental health is not. This is not a cop-out—it’s a recognition that mental health is, to some extent, relative. “Healthy” feelings and behavior of people in different places, generations, ethnic groups, organizations, families, and couples are defined in partly unique ways by the expectations of their cultural environment and peers. To a good extent, mental health is socially defined. Thus, the criteria for determining what mental health looks like may vary across cultural groups. This is an important notion to keep in mind when dealing with people new to one’s own culture.

In any culture, however, poor mental health is associated with behavior that fails repeatedly and significantly to meet cultural expectations. It is also associated with unremitting or repeated emotional distress.

What is a Mental Health Disorder?

In Western societies, the following conditions typically must be met before an expert will determine that an individual suffers from a mental health disorder:

Symptoms significantly interfere with social, occupational, or academic functioning, or the individual is unable to meet developmental expectations or perform normal activities of daily living.

The problem cannot be accounted for, in most cases, by a medical condition (in some cases, the problem may accompany a medical condition), or other explanations have been ruled out.

The symptoms that characterize a mental health disorder are determined by relative consensus within groups of mental health professionals (physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses) who meet periodically to review mental health classifications. They determine whether recent evidence requires a change in how specific diagnostic categories are defined. Classifications may be added or deleted from the diagnostic manual when it is updated.

CEUs Available for Teachers

For more information about mental health in the ABE classroom and to earn three CEUs, visit the FREE interactive, online course titled, “Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness” available on the Minnesota Literacy Council website.