Mental illness and mental health are terms that are often used interchangeably. Unlike mental illness, mental health is something that affects everyone. Our mental health is defined by how we feel, think, solve problems, handle stress, maintain relationships, and interact with the world. Good mental health helps us withstand stress or difficulty. It allows us to reach our potential as functioning, useful members of our communities. Good mental health can reduce our risk of developing a mental illness, especially when we are confronted with stress or trauma.
Mental illness is not the opposite of mental health. For example, a person with diabetes can take their medication and monitor their diet to keep their body healthy. Although there is no cure for diabetes, and the person will always have it, they can still achieve and maintain good physical health. The same is true for mental illnesses. While someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may carry the diagnosis their whole life, they can take the necessary steps to keep their brain healthy and achieve good mental health.
There are a lot of myths about mental illness. Mental illness is often seen as a character flaw, or a sign of weakness in a person. Bad parenting or poverty are sometimes blamed. People might avoid someone with the mental illness because they fear unstable behaviour or even violence. The result of these widespread misconceptions is a stigma that has become a significant (and nation-wide) barrier to treatment. People often don’t want to talk about mental illness, or seek help if they think themselves or someone they love might be experiencing symptoms. They fear judgement and social rejection.
In truth, mental illnesses are common medical conditions that affect our brains instead of our bodies. They influence how we think, feel and act. As a result, they can have detrimental effects on how we relate to and interact with other people, including those we love and trust. They affect the way we move through life, and can get in the way of our education, career, hobbies, and personal relationships.
These problems are magnified by the fact that the majority of mental illnesses affect teens and young adults. The onset of most mental illnesses is typically in the age range of 15-30; a stretch of years when people get jobs, go to college, get married or start having children. Half of Canadians will have experienced a mental illness by the time they turn 40. Twenty percent of Canadians experience some form of mental illness every year. Mental illnesses do not discriminate; people from every race, culture, and socio-economic background are affected. This is such a pervasive public health issue that in 2011 over $40 billion was spent on care and support services —2.8% of our GDP. Despite their prevalence, only 4% of medical research funding is allocated to mental illnesses.
There are many different kinds of mental illness, with no single known cause for any of them. Most researchers agree that mental illnesses are caused by a combination of factors, including biology. People with schizophrenia, for instance, have visible and measurable imbalances in their brains. Genetics seem to play a role as well. Many mental illnesses like bipolar disorder run in families, although specific genes have not been identified as causes. Environment can also contribute to the symptoms of a mental illness, or trigger their onset. Stressful life circumstances can sometimes cause clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Stress and substance use can exacerbate symptoms of other illnesses like schizophrenia.
Like many other medical conditions, mental illnesses are treatable. A combination of medication, counselling, education, self-care, and support groups can help people with mental illnesses and their families. Treatment provides the tools and skills needed to navigate the illness and help the person recover. With mental illness, recovery does not yet mean “cure.” Recovery from a mental illness means that successful treatment, good mental health, and the best possible quality of life.
Anxiety is a normal human response to many situations, like financial concerns, job stress, a tense relationship, or a physical threat. With an anxiety disorder, however, a person’s anxiety persists after the stressor has passed, or is more intense than what others would experience in the same situation. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, trouble sleeping, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, and fear of dying. Symptoms vary among the different types of anxiety disorders.
Affecting 1 in 100 people worldwide, symptoms of schizophrenia generally first appear when a person is in their youth. However, sometimes people begin exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia as young as 10 and others as old as 30. Schizophrenia is a neurological disorder that most often includes auditory and/or visual hallucinations, increased apathy or increased obsessive behaviours and thinking, such as paranoia and self-grandeur.
Visit our Schizophrenia page to learn more.
Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depression, is a type of mood disorder where a person experiences unusual and sometimes debilitating mood swings, called mood episodes. Mood episodes can be periods of extreme high or elation, known as mania, or periods of extreme low or hopelessness known as depression. Less severe manic episodes are called hypomanic episodes. Psychosis can accompany extreme episodes of mania or depression.
More information on is available at Mood Disorders Society of Canada.