Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. ~World Health Organization, 1948


Essay Topic

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.  ~World Health Organization, 1948

Discuss the above statement giving consideration to the various points of view of diverse community groups.



Most individuals associate health with the physical well-being of the body. The ‘physical health’ is directly related to the body, which most people associate to be the definition of health. The World Health Organization (WHO) (1948) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (p. 2).  However, there exist different definitions of health which reflect particular community beliefs about health. Some communities such as the Aborigines attach spiritual well-being as part of being healthy, an aspect which is overlooked by WHO’s definition of health. Other communities especially in Asia understand health as the ability to maintain energy balance in the body. This paper will dwell deeper into the different definitions of health from the standpoint of diverse communities.

In the U.S., the World Health Organization’s definition of health is the commonly accepted definition. The World Health Organization’s definition of health has been considered rational over time due to its focus on more than one aspect of health. For instance, the definition focuses on the physical, mental and social aspects of health. The WHO also identified a number of prerequisites to health. These include food, shelter, peace, education, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, and social justice and equity. The physical aspects of health encompass the physical well-being or the functioning of the body. This may be in terms of physical fitness, nutritional status, physical capacity, and good immune system. The mental aspect of health involve the ability to identify ones strengths and weaknesses, ability to cope with stress, and being a productive member of society. The social aspect refers to the ability to cordially interact and maintain relations with others.

The World Health Organization’s definition of health is often criticized due the use of the word “complete”, which may not be possible in a number of cases. It may not be possible for an individual to be in a complete state, yet the individual may still be healthy. For instance, considering a person who has lost a limb through amputation, such a person may not be complete in the sense of physical well-being. Though still, such as person may be considered healthy if he/she is not in any form of pain and has recovered from the amputation. The definition of health also includes the concept of wellbeing. Wellbeing involves the perceptions of individuals concerning their lives. Wellbeing is a much broader term that encompasses a number of aspects in an individual’s life. In addition, the WHO’s definition does not take into account the changing health needs of individuals especially with respect to their age.

The criticism leveled against this definition is only in the use of the word “complete” as it may not be possible to achieve such a state. In the recent period, the WHO recognizes health as a cumulative state, one that is supposed to be promoted throughout an individual’s lifespan. The definition encompass the three basic aspects of health in humans, that is, the physical aspect, mental aspect, and the social aspect. As such, the definition is multidimensional and thus relevant even in modern use.

Other definitions of health are also available. Bircher (2005) defines health as “a dynamic state of well-being characterized by a physical and mental potential, which satisfies the demands of life commensurate with age, culture, and personal responsibility” (p. 355). This definition of health takes into account the changes in health needs of individuals as they advance in age. Thus even aged persons who can be capable of satisfying their various personal demands can be termed as healthy, irrespective of whether they are considerably weaker than when they were younger. This is not the case with the WHO’s definition of health which emphasize health as a ‘complete’ state of wellbeing. The Meikirch model of health asserts that health reflects an individual’s wellbeing that is derived from the interaction of a number of factors such as personal potentials, life demands, and environmental and social factors (Bircher & Kuruvilla, 2014). The model’s definition is similar to WHO’s definition in that it encompasses the physical, mental and social aspects of health.

The U.S. lays emphasis on the three aspects of health outlined by the WHO’s definition; that is the physical, social and mental health of individuals. The physical aspect of health pertains to the normal functioning of the body system. There are a number of factors considered in determining physical well-being. These factors include fitness, Body Mass Index, and the working of the various organs (Goodacre, Collins, & Slattery, 2013). In order to maintain sound physical fitness, individuals must exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet. The social aspect pertains to the ability of an individual to interact well with others in the community. Human beings are social in nature and hence must learn how to interact with others. Interacting well with other individuals enhances good social health. The mental aspect refers to the ability to make sound decisions and cope with challenging situations in life. Mentally sound individuals should also be able to make positive contribution to the community (Goodacre, Collins, & Slattery, 2013).

The Chinese consider health to be an unrestricted or free flow of subtle energy through the body. Chinese medicine emphasizes on harmony or balance between the various energy systems in the body as the key to being healthy. Disharmony in the energy system is thought to cause diseases or illnesses. Traditional Chinese medicine lays emphasis on the concept of Qi, Yin and yang to describe health. Qi refers to the body’s vital energy, while yin and yang represent the forces that sustain existence and all opposite elements. As mentioned earlier, Qi is a form of energy and is universal. Since Qi is a form of energy, it contains all the characteristics of energy. According to Chinese medicine, a happy and healthy individual is the one who maintains harmony in all aspects of Qi. Qi is always in a constant state of transformation within the body (Kohn, 2011).

In Chinese medicine, bacteria and viruses are not the only causes of disease; rather, a state of disharmony among the various elements (yin and yang) which disrupt Qi can lead to diseases or ill-health among individuals. Chinese medicine acknowledges the fact that disease-causing organisms are present everywhere. When the body has harmonious and unrestricted energy flow, it is able to develop resistance to the disease-causing microorganisms. However, if the energy channels become blocked, resistance to the pathogens is reduced, causing disease or illness. This is why in Chinese medicine treatment often involves methods such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and other methods aimed at maintaining harmony among the various aspects (Seaward, 2011).

The indigenous Australians have different view on health compared to the WHO’s definition. The Aboriginals place great emphasis on community welfare in defining health. The indigenous Australia’s definition of health also includes a spiritual aspect of wellbeing. According to Berman et al., (2014), the Indigenous Australians define health as not just pertaining to the physical wellbeing but also pertaining to the spiritual, social, cultural, and emotional wellness of the entire community.  The Medical Research Council of Australia in conjunction with Aboriginal Health has accepted the aforementioned definition of health (Berman et al., 2014). The council integrates the community’s values, principles, and belief matters concerning health. Although the health services are delivered to individuals, the overall goal is to improve the lives of individuals with respect to the entire community. The health of particular individuals is assessed in terms of the community in its entirety.

In the Aboriginal concept of health, individuals are able to achieve full productivity by leading healthy lives, enabling them to be useful members of the community. If a majority of the individuals within the community are healthy, then the entire community becomes productive. This is because each individual contributes to the well-being of the whole community (Talbot & Verinder, 2009). There are a number of distinct features in the Aboriginal community’s understanding of health. First, the Aboriginals places emphasis on community control whereby each community is expected to solve any emerging health issues. The community is in charge of the decision making processes in matters concerning health. Second, the community’s understanding of health takes a holistic approach. This, as earlier mentioned involves taking health issues afflicting individuals as matters concerning the entire community. Third, there is the element of cultural respect whereby the specific cultural believes, values and norms of the society have been integrated in understanding of health.

The Australian Aboriginals’ definition of health brings to light the interplay of multiple aspects that are involved in defining an individual’s health; cultural factors, personal factors, social factors, interpersonal factors, environmental factors, and spiritual factors, all of which determine the health of individuals (Talbot & Verinder, 2009). It reveals the multiple ways in which the health of individuals can be improved through community programs, government programs and through formulation of appropriate policies. The government and health policy makers are able to formulate better health guidelines when they are provided with data derived from the local population. Through a keen analysis of the local community, the government has been able to identify a number of key concerns within the health sector. For instance, the role of education in improving the health of the community, importance of social support networks, physical environment, importance of culture and kinship, and among other concerns (Talbot & Verinder, 2009). Improving on these would help in promoting the health of Individuals.

In India, the understanding of health takes into consideration the mental, social, physical and spiritual aspects (Micozzi & McCown, 2013). These aspects describe the health or wellbeing of individuals. Health can also be defined in other ways for instance: it is the ability of individuals to abide by the outlined societal norms and values. Health is thus a complex issue, as evident from the multiple definitions and understanding of the concept in diverse communities. An individual may be in perfect physical condition, and yet be in a bad mental status. On the other hand, an individual can be disabled yet be of sound mind. Health is thus a complex issue.

India’s concept of health is different from that of the western world in that it emphasizes more on the mind, body, and spirit (Micozzi & McCown, 2013). Health and healing are thus determined by the spirit and body’s energy. India’s concept of health also emphasizes more on spiritual consciousness as an important determinant of the healing process. India’s practice of health is similar to China’s practice in that in both cases, there is a fundamental belief that the body’s energy system is responsible for maintaining the well-being in individuals. Any state of disharmony is expected to result to disease or illness. India’s healing traditions relied heavily on practices such as meditation, yoga, and other movement activities which were meant to restore the normal functioning of an individual’s nervous system. The healing traditions normally revolve around the mind, body, and spirit (Micozzi & McCown, 2013). India’s health practices focused on prevention strategies as well as curative strategies to help reduce suffering.

Most communities understand health as an interaction of physical, mental, social and spiritual aspects. In the U.S., health is understood to be a “complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing” as defined by WHO. Some of these aspects of health are echoed by Indian and Australia’s Aboriginal communities. A major difference is that the Indian community associates spirituality with health which is not common in the U.S. A slight difference in Australia’s Aboriginal understanding of health is their particular emphasis on health as a communal aspect. The Aboriginal’s and Indian’s understanding of health share similarities in their belief on spiritual aspect of wellbeing as critical to defining health. They also share other aspects which include the physical, mental, and social wellbeing. A striking difference between the two concepts lies in the healing system. Indians hold the belief that healing can occur when the body’s energy system is in balance. The Chinese understanding of health places emphasis on flow of energy in the body, disregarding the physical, social and mental aspects present in other communities. The different definitions arise due to cultural diversity whereby different cultures hold different beliefs and practices as handed down through generations.

In conclusion, health encompasses three basic aspects: the physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Many of the diverse community groups understand health in terms of the three aforementioned elements. Nonetheless, some of the diverse community groups may include additional aspects in the definition and understanding of wealth. Certain community groups include spiritual wellbeing as part of their understanding of health while others believe in community wellbeing as part of the definition of health. Generally, health can be defined in different ways based on the diverse community groups and their understanding of various issues that affect human beings. In line with this, diverse community groups have distinct ways of treating various ailments occasioned by the different understanding and definition of health. For instance the Asian community holds a strong belief about disharmony of the various body elements as the main cause of disease or illness. Thus communities have different understanding and definition of health.


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