What are Mental Health Theories? (Incl. List)

What are Mental Health TheoriesHave you ever met with a counselor or therapist and thought, “This is not a good fit?

It might have had something to do with the theories they use to inform their practice.

Counselors and therapists worldwide receive training about the theoretical underpinnings of mental health. They learn how to use those theories to support their work with clients. These professionals use diagnostic tools based on old and new theories of wellbeing.

What are these theories, and who created them? That is what you will learn as you continue reading.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values and self-compassion and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students or employees.

What are Mental Health Theories?

In the sciences, a theory is more than a simple guess. It is a “coherent group of propositions formulated to explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation” (Dictionary.com, n.d.).

One could create theories about almost anything, but it is rigorous testing that distinguishes simple theories from scientific ones. Not all theories will survive this type of testing. In fact, the acceptance or rejection of parts of theories is not unusual.

Theories developed 50-100 years ago fall into six broad categories. They still influence us today. You might recognize them as:

  • Analytical/developmental (Freud, Jung, Erickson, Kohlberg)
  • Behavioral (Watson, Skinner, Pavlov)
  • Cognitive (Tolman, Piaget, Chomsky)
  • Social (Bandura, Lewin, Festinger)
  • Humanistic (Rogers and Maslow)
  • Personality (Erickson’s psychosocial development theory)

From these, many contemporary theories followed. Some are specific to a domain like development. Others make use of neuroimaging to explain why we do the things we do.

Mental health theories strive to explain human development behaviorally, psychologically, and socially. For many years, researchers focused on alleviating pain or suffering. The approach centered on what was wrong with a person and how to fix it. There was no assumption that a person could strengthen their wellbeing.

A Look at the Models and Methods

Mental health and wellbeing experts draw from other areas to inform their perspective.

They also review a person’s mental health within context. An act could be psychopathological in one cultural context but not in another.

The main areas from which counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists gain understanding about mental health are (Dasgupta, 2013):

  • Spiritual – This approach explains who we are in the world and how we are to act. It also tells us what we can expect after death based on our actions. The spiritual perspective discusses good and evil as they relate to suffering.
  • Moral character – This perspective posits that there are certain virtues a person needs to learn. Doing so allows the individual to live a better life free from mental illness.
  • Statistical – Based on mathematics, this seeks to define what is ‘normal’ or ‘average’ for populations. Anyone falling outside of the norm is abnormal.
  • Disease/medical/biological (genetics, neuroimaging, neurobiology) – This approach explains mental health as it relates to changes in the brain. The well-known case of Phineas Gage is an example. A rod went through his left frontal lobe. This affected his personality and behavior. Before the accident, people enjoyed his company and thought he was reliable. After, they described him as ill-tempered, foul, and unreliable.
  • Psychological (psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, existential/humanistic) – Mental health develops along an expected path. People try to adjust to their environment to survive within it. Problems arise when a person learns maladaptive strategies as a response to new situations.
  • Social – Biology, psychology, and society all affect a person’s mental health. The influence of societal norms is important to the adaptive or maladaptive behavior of the individual.
  • Psychosocial (Social learning model) – Researchers in this area study the relationship between a person’s thoughts (psychological) and their social behavior. This includes the meaning a person gives to their psychological processes. According to Bandura, people learn through observation and modeling of other people’s behavior (McLeod, 2016).
  • Biopsychosocial – The interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors explains mental illness. This depends on the person and their environment.


The diagnosis and treatment of mental illness vary, but many therapists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This tool provides clear definitions of and criteria for more than 265 disorders. Diagnosis usually includes a physical exam, including lab tests, and a psychological evaluation (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).

There are approximately 20 classes of mental illness covering everything from neurodevelopmental to paraphilic disorders.

Some treatment methods are medications, psychotherapy, brain-stimulation, hospital and residential treatment programs, and substance misuse treatment.

There are three ways to experience therapeutic intervention. Sometimes therapists use a combination of these. Each environment stresses confidentiality and creating a safe space for people to share.

  • Individual counseling – This is a one-one session with a trained counselor. Depending on the type of therapy used, these sessions can continue for months or years.
  • Group Counseling – People with similar challenges work together with a trained counselor. The goals are to talk about issues, share knowledge, and solutions.
  • Family therapy – This method involves helping a family improve their communication. Through the guidance of a licensed therapist, they learn conflict resolution techniques. Not every family member necessarily participates, and it is often short term.

Mental Health Counseling Theories

There are five schools of thought that attempt to explain mental health. Many therapists and counselors operate from one or two of these.

Theories guide the services and interactions therapists have with their clients. This is important to know because it can affect how well you and your therapist “click.”

The five schools of thought are:

  1. Behaviorism – Behavior is a result of life experiences, not the unconscious mind. We learn through our experiences with our environment. This approach is all about conditioning. It is present-focused.
  2. Biological – This is a medical model of treating mental disorders. The idea is that something physical is the cause of the mental illness. Symptoms are “outward signs of the inner physical disorder” (McLeod, 2018).
  3. Psychodynamic – Like behaviorism, psychodynamic therapists view behavior as a result of experiences. One of the differences, though is that their focus is on past experiences. They assert that unconscious forces drive people’s behavior. The client and therapist revisit explored ground to achieve more understanding. This therapeutic process can take many years.
  4. Cognitive – The emphasis of this theory is on thinking, not doing. A feedback loop exists between the person’s assumptions and attitudes, their resulting perceptions, and the conclusions drawn from them (Grace, n.d.). These therapists work to assist a person to change their thoughts. Doing this leads to a change in feeling and behavior.
  5. Humanistic – Three different therapies can help people achieve their highest potential. Client-centered therapy, developed by Carl Rogers, allows the client to investigate who they are at their core. The therapist creates an environment of empathy, acceptance, and genuineness. This encourages the client in their self-exploration. Gestalt Therapy, created by Frederick Perls, is present-focused and involves role-playing. Existential therapy techniques is about ownership of one’s life, including all its mishaps. The responsibility of one’s life is one’s own.

It is easy to understand how a therapist influenced by one of these theories might interact with a client. Positive psychology practitioners, for example, primarily follow humanistic theories. One would expect this therapist to be empathetic and stress ownership and responsibility. The sessions would include a healthy dose of self-exploration, especially related to developing strengths.

A List of Popular Mental Health Theories

Every theory of mental health comes from one of the above five areas or a combination of them.

Here is a brief overview of theories derived from those broader categories.

Network theory explains that “mental disorders arise from direct interactions between symptoms” (Borsboom, 2017). The biological, psychological, and societal influences facilitate the connection between Psychopathological symptoms.

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on assisting the person in changing destructive thoughts and behaviors. It is a type of psychotherapy that helps a client to quickly identify and manage problems. The approach is goal-oriented and often involves homework. The homework helps to reinforce the in-person sessions. It is the “gold standard in the psychotherapy field” (David, Cristea, & Hofmann, 2018).

Operant conditioning still is a popular approach. Whether used by therapists or physical trainers, it involves identifying the cue-routine-reward pattern. The goal is to change the person’s behavior by changing the routine and sometimes the reward. It is often used in the treatment of OCD through exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy allows the person to engage with the source of their anxiety in a safe space. The goal is to slowly, and incrementally, increase the person’s exposure to their fear. There are several variations of exposure therapy (APA, n.d.).

It is useful in the treatment of:

  • Phobias
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Classical conditioning also remains a popular treatment for phobias through the use of systematic desensitization. This is a variant of exposure therapy (Grace College, 2016).

Popular Mental Health Theories on Wellbeing

The Self-determination Theory of motivation (SDT), and more specifically, the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) posit that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the primary supports for wellbeing and optimal functioning (SDT, n.d.) If anyone of these is faulty, then the person’s wellbeing decreases. Intrinsic motivation increases through the satisfaction of having these needs met (read more about intrinsic coaching here).

The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions (Fredrickson, 1998, 2000) changed the discussion around emotions. Many of the psychological theories and research before this dealt with negative affect. These are emotions like anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and shame (Stringer, 2013).

Fredrickson argued that negative emotions create a sort of tunnel vision. Positive affect widens one’s perspective. Positive emotions like awe, joy, and gratitude expand one’s experience within the environment. The theory doesn’t advocate ignoring negative emotions. Instead, it discusses the ramifications of continuing to ignore positive ones.

The focus of the PERMA Theory of wellbeing (Seligman, 2011) is helping people to thrive. It promotes building skills that allow one to flourish (Positive Psychology Center, n.d.). Many contemporary theories attempt to help a person reduce suffering. PERMA theory of wellbeing states that wellbeing consists of five elements:

  1. Positive emotion – These emotions increase our hedonic happiness.
  2. Engagement – This is the flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses. Being engrossed in one’s pursuit is the reward.
  3. Relationships – Support is critical to our survival and emotional wellbeing.
  4. Meaning – Serving or working in a capacity that contributes to something larger than ourselves gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.
  5. Achievement – We enjoy pursuing accomplishments for the sake of doing so.

Each of these contributes in varying degrees to a person’s ability to flourish. Positive psychology therapists and coaches often use this as a backdrop for their sessions.

A Take-Home Message

There are several mental health theories, but they all come from one of five schools of thought. They are behaviorism, biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, and humanistic.

In recent years, there has been a move toward studying how people flourish. This is positive psychology. Unlike previous years, this field of research explores what humans already do well. Doing this type of research helps others to increase their opportunities to thrive.

If you seek the help of a therapist or counselor, it is important to know the basis for their approach. You do not want to see a behavioral psychologist to flesh out how you can find meaning in your life. They are better suited for helping you change, develop, or extinguish a habit.

The continued study of mental health, including the more positive aspects, is critical to each person’s wellbeing.

What are you doing today to flourish in your life?

If you enjoyed reading about mental health theories, why not head on over to mental health books for even more reading material.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


  • Alcohol and health: Battling a multifaceted burden. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.inserm.fr/en/health-information/health-and-research-from-z/alcohol-%26-health#
  • American Psychological Association (n.d.). What is exposure therapy? [Web log post]. Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy
  • American Psychological Association (n.d.). Different approaches to psychotherapy [Web log post]. Retrieved August 1, 2019, from, https://www.apa.org/topics/therapy/psychotherapy-approaches
  • Borsboom, D. (2017 February). A network theory of mental disorders. World Psychiatry, 16(1), 5-13.
  • Dasgupta, S. (2013 February 14). Models of mental health and illness. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.slideshare.net/SudarshanaDasgupta/models-of-mental-health-illness
  • David, D., Cristea, I, & Hofmann, S. G. (2018 January 29). Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the current gold standard of psychotherapy. Front Psychiatry, 9(4).
  • Grace College (2016 November 15). 4 popular mental health counseling theories [Web log post]. Retrieved July 26, 2019 from https://online.grace.edu/news/human-services/counseling-theories/
  • Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Family therapy: Overview. Retrieved July 28, 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/family-therapy/about/pac-20385237
  • Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Mental Illness. Retrieved July 26, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20374974
  • McLeod, S. (2016). Bandura – Social Learning Theory [Web log post]. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html
  • McLeod, S. (2018). The medical model [Web log post]. Retrieved August 1, 2019 from, https://www.simplypsychology.org/medical-model.html
  • Positive Psychology Center (n.d.). PERMA Theory of well-being workshops. Retrieved August 2, 2019, from https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops
  • Scientific theory (n.d.) Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/scientific-theory
  • Self-Determination Theory: Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2, 2019 from, https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
  • Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
  • Stringer, D. M. (2013). Negative affect. Retrieved August 2, 2019, from https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4419-1005-9_606.


What our readers think

  1. kyliee

    Can you help me on our theoretical framework, our title is ” The effects of COVID-19 pandemic on students mental health” help me please

    • Caroline Rou

      Hi Kylie,

      Thank you for your question. I would love to help you out, but I need some additional information. Which aspects of mental health will you be investigating?


      -Caroline | Community Manager

  2. Helen Rodrigues

    Hello, Can you help me to find theories or literature review on holistic approach for my research based project on ‘ Good emotional health and well-being ‘ in my care settings

    • Caroline Rou

      Hi Helen,

      Thanks for your question. This article might be useful for you. It explores a holistic approach to mental and emotional health and well-being of children and young people.

      I hope this helps!

      -Caroline | Community Manager

  3. Shelly

    Can you suggest a theory that would not align with psychiatry for a NP?

    • Caroline Rou

      Hi Shelly,

      I’d love to help. Could you please explain a little bit more about what kind of theory you are looking for?


      – Caroline | Community Manager

  4. natasha william

    Hi I wanted to ask if you know any theories that i can write about within my dissertation regarding social media usage (mostly about addiction-how the excessive usage leads to addiction) and social anxiety among young women 18-29. For each section, im going to be writing a huge paragraph about social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, twitter, youtube and tiktok. Within those 5 social media, which mental health theories will go in each one? In addition, when when im done with those paragraphs, i will then write about if social anxiety comes from from social media. So do you know any mental health theories and research i can get regarding this topic?

    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Natasha,

      A recent review was published on this topic by Sun and Zhang (2021): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106699

      You’ll see in the paper that there are many theories that have been used to understand social media use/addiction (see the table). I don’t think there is one unifying framework/theory on this topic yet but I suspect this summary will be a useful starting point for you.

      I hope this helps!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  5. Isabel

    Thank you ☺️

  6. Mohamed

    1Any citation about the following
    1 What factors lead to mental disorders/ poor mental health among the prison officers
    2 What is the correlation between poor mental health and service delivery among prison officers?
    3 Are there differences in mental health and service delivery between male and female prison officers?
    iv. Which policies are implemented to curb the negative effects of mental health by the Prison Service


    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Mohamed,

      Happy to help with this! The best I can probably do is point you toward Clements et al. (2020): https://doi.org/10.4337/9781788970358.00018

      This book chapter discusses antecedents of poor prison officer mental health. I’m not aware of any research explicitly exploring the link between prison officer mental health and service delivery (or the moderating effect of gender on this relationship), but it might be out there. I’d suggest doing some searching on Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      • Celeste

        Hello, Can you help me to find theories for the theoretical framework of my study “health workers’ experience of mental health act implementation” thank you, it would be a very great help

        • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

          Hi Celeste,

          Thank you for your question. Could you please give me a little more detail about what you mean by “mental health act implementation”? What sorts of acts are you referring to (new legislation)?

          – Nicole | Community Manager

  7. Edmar

    Can you help me to find theories for my theoretical framework of my study “mental health awareness toward effective stress management plan”.

    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Edmar,

      Could you please give me a few more details about your study? For instance, who is your target population and are you specifically looking to design an intervention?

      Let me know and I’d be happy to help.

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  8. Isha

    Can you help me in my theoretical Framework our research title is
    effects of new normal education to mental health of Senior High School Students. Please help me.

    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Isha,

      Research on the psychological impact of the pandemic on students is still emerging. I’m not sure that you will find a specific ‘theory’ on this. However, one of the first and most highly cited accounts we’ve seen so far related to student populations is Cao et al. (2020), which is showing students are experiencing much higher levels of anxiety, but factors like economic stability and social support may buffer against these negative effects: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.112934

      Another useful read may be this call for further research on the topic by Grubic et al. (2020). This could help you identify some specific gaps in the literature you could address with your research: https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020925108

      Hope this helps!

      – Nicole | Community Manager


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