Erich Fromm in his The Sane Society (1955) argued that mental health should not be defined merely in terms of the person's harmony with his/her society. He believed that a society, as a whole, could be mentally ill. He said that all humans share a common human nature, with which some cultures are not in accordance.

Maybe that's the cause of the collapse of some civilizations in the past.

One big problem here is the complexity of human brain and human life which make predictions difficult. For example, in the 60s and the 70s a sexual revolution occurred in western countries. Psychologists today consider some sexual behaviors normal/healthy which were traditionally discouraged. But in comparison with the age of human civilization on earth, these changes in norms are very recent experiments, about the results of which we may not be able to be sure.

We can see the same problem in economics, which is, in some sense, based on psychology. As an example, since the 80s neoliberalism has been the predominant economic theory in western countries, but now some big names in economics state that it is a failed experiment, causing many problems like deep inequality and the rise of populism.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe a better/related question to ask is 'why?' AFAIK, it has all to do with being able to function without problems in current society. By definition, mental 'health' is defined by expectations from society. But, as you highlight, society changes over time. But, I will eagerly await an answer by someone within the field. 🙂 $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Mar 9, 2019 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ How can they? To be cynical, they can because there's no one better positioned to do so. (That and money, power that comes with prestige etc.) And by the way, it's psychiatrists who do that, in the US at least. So this is not a real question to be answered from psychology or neuroscience in my view. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2019 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz - Mental health and related terms have definitions which span all fields within the mental health profession. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2019 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ We can return the question: when start 'non-healthy' state? Maybe, when the person complains or when is no longer 'fit' to live in his environment (which explains why healing can be done by modifying the environment) $\endgroup$
    – Dadep
    Mar 10, 2019 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ I am going to close this question as both too broad, and opinion-based. I believe the comments thus far support this reasoning. How mental health is defined and assessed is complex, and certainly not done unilaterally by psychologists - it involves politics, history, culture, patients, clinicians, and researchers in various fields. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Mar 12, 2019 at 18:17

1 Answer 1


Although you are correct in thinking, mental health is not defined merely by what others feel, it is a lot more personal. If I am understanding your question correctly, you believe that mental health is based on predictions. While predictions are necessary for defining a lesser known disorder, ones such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are quite common and have been so for long enough that diagnosing them is relatively easy. In addition, it can be widely agreed upon that behavior such as suicide and self-harm are abnormal. A persistent change in mood is another indicator of a cognitive error. Lastly, hallucinations and delusions are also clearly indicative of an underlying problem. All of these symptoms must be present without the use of drugs, obviously. Any other behavior or thought pattern that interferes with daily life and/or is societally unacceptable should be a reason for alarm. These symptoms are clear and require no similar cases to diagnose an "issue with mental health" Aside from common, well-known disorders, evidence of other cases must be present in order to label such as a specific disorder. What I cannot prove are the disorders that are few and far between, and seem highly implausible. Regardless, if one seems "different" for an extended period of time and does not seem to be improving, it would be wise to seek help. Hope this makes sense, it was a fun question to answer;)

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. Please visit our site tour. We work differently to most SE sites, where we have a strict policy that all answers should be backed up with reliable references so that the answer can be independently verified, regardless of the reader's/answerer's background. If you still have trouble with this, feel free to visit the help center or Psychology & Neuroscience Meta. Unreferenced claims can lead to answers being deleted. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2019 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for you answer, Karissa. I think phrases like 'mental health', 'healthy behavior', and 'good way of living' should be ultimately related to pleasant states of mind. For example, taking some drugs isn't deemed healthy because, though pleasant temporarily, it may produce much more suffering later -- for the person, society, or even later generations. So I think prediction is very important. $\endgroup$
    – apadana
    Mar 16, 2019 at 2:49

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