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Can the 12-item General Health Questionnaire be used to measure positive mental health?



Background. Well-being is an important determinant of health and social outcomes. Measures of positive mental health states are needed for population-based research. The 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) has been widely used in many settings and languages, and includes positively and negatively worded items. Our aim was to test the hypothesis that the GHQ-12 assesses both positive and negative mental health and that these domains are independent of one another.

Method. Exploratory (EFA) and confirmatory (CFA) factor analyses were conducted using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and the Health Survey for England (HSE). Regression models were used to assess whether associations with individual and household characteristics varied across positive and negative mental health dimensions. We also explored higher-level variance in these measures, between electoral wards.

Results. We found a consistent, replicable factor structure in both datasets. EFA results indicated a two-factor solution, and CFA demonstrated that this was superior to a one-factor model. These factors correspond to ‘symptoms of mental disorder’ and ‘positive mental health’. Further analyses demonstrated independence of these factors in associations with age, gender, employment status, poor housing and household composition. Statistically significant ward-level variance was found for symptoms of mental disorder but not positive mental health.

Conclusions. The GHQ-12 measures both positive and negative aspects of mental health, and although correlated, these dimensions have some independence. The GHQ-12 could be used to measure positive mental health in population-based research.


Corresponding author

Health Sciences Research Institute, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK. (Email:


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