About Mental Illness and Mental Health

What is Mental Illness?

There are different kinds of mental disorders each characterized by different sets of symptoms that affect how we think, feel and behave. Symptoms can include depressed mood, extreme mood swings, disturbances in thought or perception, obsessions or fears, or other overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Most mental disorders cannot be definitively diagnosed with an objective medical test. Diagnosis is usually based on self-report (what you say you are experiencing), observations by family and friends, disturbances in your behaviour, psychological tests and the judgment and experience of a health professional (your family doctor and/or a specialized mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist).

Often people wait a long time before they ask for help and sometimes, unfortunately, people do not ask for help for a mental health problem at all. They and their family feel that something is wrong – but they don’t know what. They may not know where to go to get help or may be reluctant to ask for help if they do. In addition, diagnosing a mental disorder can take time – with many people reporting that it took months, and sometimes years to get a diagnosis that fit with what they were experiencing.

There are a number of reasons people struggle with a mental disorders without reaching out for help: They simply don’t know what’s wrong and feel they are just “different;” they feel they can beat it on their own; they are ashamed and try to hide their symptoms; exasperated family and friends tell them to “get over it;” or they reach out for help but their first experience leaves them feeling disregarded and misunderstood.

Yet we know that the earlier people get help, the better the outcome.

One way to get help for yourself or someone you know as soon as possible is to educate yourself about what a mental disorder looks like.

First of all, a mental disorder is not just a feeling or reaction to an experience or event. There are different kinds of disorders and each is identified by a collection of different symptoms that persist for a specific period of time and significantly interfere with a person’s roles, activities, relationships and/or capacity for self care.
Mental disorders can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life over a considerable period of time. Many mental disorders begin in childhood and some are almost always first diagnosed in childhood. Other disorders, such as those that affect thinking like dementia or amnesia, may be related to age, physical injury or other medical conditions. However, people can, and do, successfully cope with and recover from mental disorders.

What is Mental Health?

Living a healthy life has often meant paying attention –only – to the many ingredients that make up positive physical health. However, we now know that health is composed of both physical and mental health and that the body and the mind interact, with one affecting the other – either positively or negatively.

In our culture, the emphasis on physical health means that most people can easily list what you need to do to stay healthy – eat sensibly, exercise regularly, visit your doctor yearly for check-ups and testing, drink alcohol in moderation, don’t smoke, and get a good night’s sleep.

Because mental health is less talked about, when we think about it, if we think about it at all, we may conclude that good mental health is something we have – or not – and there’s not much we can do about it.

Maintaining positive mental health means paying attention to your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health – as well as your physical health. Some things to think about:

  1. Do you have something intellectually stimulating to do every day? The brain enjoys a work-out, just like the body.
  2. Are you able to recognize the ups and downs in your emotional life and take positive action to restore your balance? This can mean talking out angry feelings instead of exploding, or recognizing sadness and not feeling ashamed of your tears.
  3. Are your relationships, mostly, positive? No one can insulate themselves completely from difficult relationships but are you able to recognize when you are being treated unfairly or unkindly and stand up for yourself?
  4. Do you have loved ones around you who you support, and who support you? Do you have a friend – or several friends – who you can confide in?
  5. Does your work (or volunteer activities) have meaning for you? Do you feel you are making a contribution? Nothing is ever perfect but are you able to take action in your workplace to address bad treatment or dynamics that are troublesome?
  6. Do you have a role in your community? Do you feel a part of the neighbourhood you live in? Are you a part of other types of “communities” such as those based on interests, identity or spirituality.
  7. Do you know your history and culture? Are you proud of your roots? If, at any time, you have been made to feel ashamed of who you are, have you been able to recognize these feelings and take action to end the cruelty – which may mean speaking out against bigotry or simply reminding yourself that your people have a proud history and have nothing to be ashamed of.
  8. Do you make time for fun and a good laugh? Do you recognize that playing can be as valuable as working? Can you describe times in your life that were joyous?
  9. Do you have activities in your life that feed your soul. Spiritual fulfillment may come from belonging to an organized religion. Some people make other choices; time spent in nature, listening to music or enjoying the arts.
  10. When things go wrong, as they do in anyone’s life, do you reach out for support. Do you know when an event or circumstance has become too heavy a burden for anyone to carry alone – and you need help? Can you ask for help when you need it?
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