4-minute read

When was the phrase mental health first used?
In the OED meaning ‘mental health n. health of the mind as distinct from physical health; the condition of a person or group in respect of the functioning of the mind; the branch of medicine that deals with this; frequently attributive.’

It goes back rather further than you might expect…

Virtue is a Virgins Wealth, The Magazine of mental Health.
?1650   T. Jordan Claraphil & Clarinda in a forrest of fancies, sig. B8

Thomas Jordan was a seventeenth-century poet(aster), actor and dramatist.

Curiously enough, the next citation is also poetic:

I’ll be thy guest, and give thee mental health.
1795   C. Lloyd Poems on Var. Subj. 104

A modern definition of ‘mental health’ is ‘A person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’ (Pedants: please note the use of ‘singular’ their there.)

Does the ?1650 quote have that meaning?

‘Magazine’ there means ‘storehouse, repository’. The meaning seems to be that by remaining virtuous (i.e. a virgin) a woman retains a healthy mind. The second quotation seems similarly to be saying that the writer will restore the addressee’s mind to a healthy state.

It is not, however, until 1946 that mental health in its modern meaning (covering both the state of mind and the branch of medicine dealing with it) appears, this time as a book title:

Neurosis and the mental health services.
1946   C. P. Blacker (title)

The compound noun phrase mental health was first enshrined in law in the UK in the 1959 Mental Health Act. Its very title was distinctly more humane than those of the acts it abolished, the Lunacy and mental Treatment Acts 1890 to 1930, and the Mental Deficiency Acts 1913 to 1938.

Google Ngrams (for ‘British English’, many of which are not in fact British) shows a vertiginous rise in its frequency from the 1990s, following a slower upward curve from 1940 or thereabouts.

Where does the word ‘mental’ come from?

The OED lexicographers say that it is not clear whether English ‘borrowed’ it directly from Latin or from French. If from Latin, it’s amusing to note that Saint Augustine condemned it as a new word in the fifth century: dislike of new words is very old.

Alternatively, English may have snaffled it from French. It appeared in the form mentel in Middle French in 1371 and as mental in 1457. In either case, the root word is the Latin mēns, meaning ‘mind’, a feminine noun which is still alive, if only barely, in the legal phrase mens rea, the intention of wrongdoing, or literally ‘guilty mind’.

The accusative of mēns is mentem, which is where the letter t comes in. Then you slap on the suffix –alis (as in fatal, global, etc.) to get the post-classical Latin mentālis.

What does it mean?

With so many other words, you could almost say in all seriousness, ‘how long is a piece of string?’

With mental, the situation seems simpler and clearer. Yes, the OED divides it into ten different senses – if you, dear reader, introspected about it, I’m sure you’d find it hard to think of ten different meanings –  and that is without going into the compounds listed such as mental age, mental block, etc.

But don’t despair. Those ten meanings divide basically into two which the OED summarizes as a) ‘of or relating to the mind’ and b) ‘Senses relating to the mind in an unhealthy or abnormal state.’

Relating to the mind

Meaning a) above covers things such as mental events, mental arithmetic, mental image and mental science.
The first citation is from roughly 1422:

But now y see with myn yen mental Thestat of al an-othir world than this.
Hoccleve Ars Sciendi Moril. 666 in Minor Poems (1970) i. 203

An outlier of this broad meaning is defined as ‘Characterized by the possession of an active mind; thoughtful; intellectual’ which the OED tags as rare.

This young man is also very mental. His being is riddled with theory and hypothesis.
1983   J. Jones Dostoevsky ii. 202

Relating to the mind in an unhealthy or abnormal state

As with the previous meaning, this is mostly used before a noun (‘attributively’) as in mental breakdown, mental deficiency and the now discouraged use of the word as in mental hospital.*

It was first used in this meaning in 1768. There are some piquant OED examples by Poe, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Wyndham Lewis:

And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend.
1839   E. A. Poe Fall House of Usher in Burton’s Gentleman’s Mag. Sept. 150

I resolved to be clean in my own sight—and to the last I repudiated the contamination of her crimes, and wrenched myself from connexion with her mental defects.
1847   C. Brontë Jane Eyre III. i. 21

I have such a horror of a mental breakdown.
1869   ‘G. Eliot’ Let. 21 Sept. (1956) V. 56

And my fave rave for baroque vituperation:

The goitrous torpid and squinting husks provided by Matisse in his sculpture are worthless except as tactful decorations for a mental home.
1926   W. Lewis Art of being Ruled xii. vii. 405

The first person known to use it colloquially in the sense of ‘mentally ill’ was Dorothy L. Sayers:

I gather she was a little queer towards the end—a bit mental, I think you people [sc. nurses] call it?
1927   D. L. Sayers Unnatural Death iv. 41

‘Queer’ above means ‘strange, odd’.

In the phrase to go mental, it generally means to lose self-control in anger, ‘fly off the handle’:

 I don’t care if Mr. Dersingham goes mental, we’re going to be lucky.
1930   J. B. Priestley Angel Pavement ii. 68

But, as the OED says, it can be ‘more recently (as in quot. 1992) also in positive sense of ecstatic abandon).’

Take the express train and go mental to the sounds of DJ Steve McMahon.
1992   Village Voice (N.Y.28 Jan. 49/1 (advt.)

* The OED sense category (II 5 b) to which mental hospital belongs also includes mental home, institution and ward and its first citation dates to 1898. The OED notes in the rubric that this note is ‘Now somewhat dated, and sometimes avoided as potentially offensive; psychiatric is often used instead.’ The Ngrams chart below illustrates this trend clearly (again, ‘British’ English):

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