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What is mental health?

November 17, 2020 • read

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What is mental health?

Mental health is a commonly talked-about subject, but how many of us can define what mental health really is? 

Mental health is an umbrella term used to describe a combination of different factors. All together, they paint a picture of your mental well-being. Mental health and mental illness are usually talked about together, but they’re not the same thing. Here’s an introduction to what mental health really is, and the most common mental illnesses affecting Canadians.

The difference between mental illness and mental health

Everyone has mental health. It’s your level of psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing. You have varying states of mental health, just like you have different states of physical health. When you get a cold, you experience a short period of physical illness. Your mental health fluctuates in the same way throughout your life. Sometimes your mental health is great, but inevitably, life’s rough patches will cause the occasional mental health decline. In these times, just like when you’re sick, things like rest, care, and medicine can help get your mental health back on track.

Mental illness and mental health aren’t interchangeable terms — they mean two different things. Mental illness is a health condition. When you’re mentally ill, you experience changes to your thinking, emotions, or behaviour that impair your ability to function socially. If you’re living with a mental illness, you’re not alone. 50% of Canadians either have a mental illness currently, or have had one in the past.

Unlike mental health, not everyone experiences mental illness. If you have a period where you feel sad or stressed, it doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Fluctuations in your feeling of well-being are a natural part of life. It’s when your thoughts, feelings and behaviour start negatively affecting your daily life that it’s possible you’re living with a mental illness. 

Common mental illnesses 

There are lots of different types of mental illness. Sometimes mental illness is chronic, meaning it lasts for a year or longer and requires management like therapy or medication. With other mental illnesses, the duration is shorter and you may be able to manage them completely with the right support. 

Mood and anxiety disorders

Mood and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in Canada. Each one has different symptoms, but there are some general commonalities. People with a mental illness from this category have persistent feelings of anxiety, fear, or nervousness and low mood. In one year, 4.4 million Canadians reported they’re living with a mood or anxiety disorder.

This group of mental illnesses includes:

  • Panic disorder, which causes people to have feelings of intense fear when there is no real danger.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). With OCD, people experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that make it hard to function in everyday life.
  • Bipolar disorder. This illness comes with periods of intense emotional highs called manic states, followed by periods of depression.
  • Major depression. Depression causes long periods of deep sadness and disinterest in socializing or activities you once enjoyed.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are a group of mental illnesses that distort your relationship with food, causing changes in your thoughts and behaviours around eating. With some eating disorders, people eat very little food. Others cause people to binge eat or overeat. 

Around 1 million Canadians are living with an eating disorder. This group of mental illnesses has the highest mortality rate. 

Common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia may have a body weight that’s dangerously low. The illness causes people to limit their eating or to exercise excessively in order to avoid weight gain. With anorexia, people often feel like their body mass is larger than it really is.
  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a binge-purge cycle. Binging is classified as eating a large amount of food at once, usually more than 1000 calories, while feeling out-of-control. People with bulimia then purge in an attempt to “get rid” of the calories by inducing themselves to vomit, excessively exercising, or taking laxatives. 

Substance use disorders

Substance use disorder is also referred to as addiction. In Canada, around six million people will  use substances during their lifetime. 

Substances include legal intoxicants like alcohol and prescription medication, as well as illegal drugs. The characteristics of abuse, like knowing how much is too much, vary depending on the substance. Still, people with substance misuse disorder often experience the four Cs:

  • Craving. Your system becomes dependent on a substance and you feel sick without it.
  • Compulsion. This is where your urge to use grows over time and becomes overpowering.
  • Consequences. Despite negative effects on areas of your life like relationships or finances, you continue to use the substance.
  • Control issues. You feel unable to limit your substance use or stop altogether.

If you’re experiencing challenges with mental illness, don’t go through it alone. Millions of Canadians have periods of mental illness in their lifetimes. Treatment can provide relief. 

Building a relationship with a therapist can help you get to the bottom of stress and unhappiness, and help you build coping skills to handle life’s obstacles. The health of your mind is important to your overall enjoyment of life. If you want to try therapy, you can see a therapist online from the comfort of your home.

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