About mental illness

Mental illness is experienced by 1 in 3 Canadians during their lifetime. Many Canadians are affected by it either directly or indirectly through family, friends or colleagues. Learn about mental illness, its risk factors, symptoms and treatment.

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What is mental illness?

Mental illness is the reduced ability for a person to function effectively over a prolonged period of time because of:

  • significant levels of distress
  • changes in thinking, mood or behaviour
  • feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness
  • the feeling of being disconnected from people and activities

Canadians affected with mental illness may not be able to cope with the simplest aspects of everyday life. They may need help to regain a healthy emotional balance in their lives.

Mental illness usually begins during adolescence and young adulthood. However, mental illness can be experienced by people:

  • of all ages
  • of all cultures
  • from all educational levels
  • from all income levels

Mental illness is not the same as feeling distressed because of normal reactions to difficult situations, such as:

  • the death of a loved one
  • job loss
  • a romantic breakup
  • a sudden change of circumstance, like:
    • moving to a new area
    • attending a new school
    • going through a divorce

Most of us are able to regain control of our lives after a difficult situation. But those with mental illness feel distress regularly. They may feel powerless to regain control.

What are the types of mental illness?

Mental illness takes many forms, including:

  • mood disorders that affect how you feel, such as:
    • depression
    • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorders, which cause intense and prolonged fear that is not based on actual threat or danger
  • schizophrenia, which causes mixed-up thoughts, delusions or hallucinations
  • personality disorders
    • a type of mental disorder in which someone has unhealthy patterns of thinking, functioning and behaving
  • eating disorders, which influence eating behaviours and are accompanied by negative thoughts about body shape and weight, such as:
    • anorexia
    • bulimia

Although suicide is not itself considered a mental illness, it is often the result of some underlying mental illness. It is a significant cause of premature death in Canada.

What are the risk factors for mental illness?

Many factors cause mental illness. Contributing factors include:

  • genetics, which are influenced by your family history
  • early life experiences, such as:
    • abuse
    • trauma
  • stressful life events, such as:
    • financial problems
    • a loved one's death
    • divorce
  • environmental influences on a fetus, such as exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • your social, economic and educational status

What are the symptoms of mental illness?

Mental illness involves changes in thinking, mood or behaviour, or a combination of these issues.

Symptoms include:

  • significant distress
  • inability to function as needed over an extended period of time

These symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on the:

  • type of mental illness
  • individual
  • family
  • patient's environment

What are the physical health effects of mental illness?

Mental health is as important as physical health, and they both directly affect the other. People with physical health problems often experience anxiety or depression, which affects their recovery.

Similarly, mental health factors can increase the risk of developing physical problems, such as:

  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • weight gain or loss

How is mental illness treated?

Most mental illnesses can be effectively treated by health professionals and community-based services. However, some people may need hospitalization to stabilize their symptoms.

Unfortunately, because of the stigma of mental illness, many people avoid or delay treatment. Stigma is the negative associations made about certain:

  • behaviours
  • activities
  • people
  • qualities
  • circumstances

If you experience signs of mental illness, it is important that you seek help as soon as possible. If someone close to you is showing signs, talk to them about getting help. You can talk about your concerns to a licensed health professional, such as a:

  • family physician
  • psychologist
  • mental health nurse
  • social worker

You may also want to talk to another trusted professional, such as a counsellor or spiritual leader.

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