What is Mental Health?

Mental health is more than having or not having a mental illness. We can’t be truly healthy without it. It involves how we feel, think, act, and interact with the world around us. Mental health is about realizing our potential, coping with normal stresses of life and being involved in our community, such as our school, an art group or a sports team.

Good mental health is not about avoiding problems or trying to achieve a ‘perfect’ life. It’s about living well and feeling capable despite challenges. Each of our individual paths to mental health will be unique, as we all have our own goals, our own struggles, our own talents and our own supports.

What is a Mental Health Issue?

Everyone will experience a mental health issue, like grief or stress, at some point in their lifetime. A mental health issue may arise anytime change happens, such as the death of a loved one, a relationship ending or a big school exam. These types of feelings happen to everyone and can affect how we think, our ability to handle situations and how we function in our day-to-day life.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is a change in thinking, mood or behaviour that negatively impacts a person’s life over a period of time. If you have become sad, withdrawn or have noticed other changes in your feelings or actions for a period longer than two weeks it may be time to ask for help. Just like a physical illness, a mental illness is a health problem. Anyone, of any age, race or background, can experience a mental illness.

A mental illness affects the way we think about ourselves, relate to others and interact with the world around us. It can affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and it can make life more challenging. But with the right supports, a person with mental illness can get on a path back to mental wellness.

Experiencing a mental illness can be very overwhelming. You may wonder if you will ever feel like yourself again. It’s important to know that having a mental illness is not your fault and it’s not a sign of weakness. If you think you might have a mental illness, it’s important to seek help early. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will start to feel better.

Types of Mental Illness

It is important to understand there are many different types of mental illnesses and that they affect different people in different ways. With each type of mental illness, people may have unique experiences and challenges.

Health professionals divide mental illnesses into groups based on the emotions, thoughts and behaviours a person is experiencing. Some groups of mental illness include:

  • Anxiety Disorders (ie. obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Anxiety disorders are all related to anxiety. They may include excessive and uncontrollable worry, strong fears around everyday things or situations, unwanted thoughts, panic attacks, or fears around a past scary situation. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses, and they can create barriers in people’s lives. Panic disorder and phobias are examples of anxiety disorders.

  • Mood Disorders (ie. depression, bipolar affective disorder)
  • Mood disorders all affect a person’s mood—the way they feel. This can affect every part of a person’s life. When someone experiences a mood disorder, they may feel sad, hopeless, tired, or numb for long periods of time. At times, some people experience an unusually ‘high’ mood and feel powerful and energetic, but this can also create problems. Depression and bipolar disorder are examples of mood disorders.

  • Eating Disorders (ie. anorexia, bulimia, binge eating)
  • Eating disorders really aren’t about food. They are complicated illnesses that are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control. Eating disorders may include seriously restricting how much food a person eats, bingeing, or purging food. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are examples of eating disorders.

  • Psychotic disorders (ie. schizophrenia, psychosis)
  • Psychosis is a health problem that affects how people understand what is real and what isn’t real. People may sense things that aren’t real or strongly believe things that can’t be real. Schizophrenia is one example of a psychotic disorder.

  • Personality Disorders (ie. borderline personality disorder)
  • Personality disorders are patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that may last for a long time and create challenges in a person’s life. People who experience personality disorders may have difficulties developing healthy and satisfying relationships with others, managing their emotions well, avoiding harmful behaviour, and working toward important life goals. Personality disorders can affect the way people understand and view themselves and others and cope with problems. Borderline personality disorder is one example of a personality disorder

  • Childhood Disorders(ie. ADD/ADHD)
  • This is a large group of mental illnesses that start to affect people when they are young, though some people are not diagnosed until they’re older. One example of a disorder in this group is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD), which affects a person’s ability to focus, complete tasks, plan or organize, sit still, or think through actions.

  • Substance (drug or alcohol) Dependence
  • Substance-Related Disorders include disorders related to the taking of a drug and includes alcohol and over-the-counter medications. There is a pattern of repeated self-administration that usually results in tolerance, withdrawal, and compulsive drug-taking behaviour.

What Causes Mental Illness?

There is no single cause for mental illness. A person may experience a mental illness because of many factors, including their genetics (*Genes carry the information that determines your traits, which are features or characteristics that are passed on to you — or inherited — from your parents.), how their brain works (brain chemistry) and life experiences. Here are factors (either alone or a combination of) that could lead to mental illness:

Genetics: Mental illness may be passed down genetically – for example, from a parent or grandparent to a child – in families. Having a family member with mental illness does NOT mean you will have the illness too, but you may be more likely to develop a mental illness than someone who does not have the same genetic link.

Brain Chemistry: Our brains are made up of billions of neurons, which communicate with each other through chemicals. Mental illness may occur if there is an imbalance in those chemicals.

Life experiences (environmental factors): These can include but are not limited to,

  • Negative family or social circle experiences
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Family violence or other violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Lack of support from important relationships
  • Severe or ongoing stress
  • Major life changes
  • Any kind of traumatic event or experience

*Gene definition provided by kidshealth.org.
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