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Understanding Mental Illness



Mental illness – when we hear those words, many of us feel a little uncertain or uneasy, because we don’t understand what mental illness is. And perhaps we feel a little scared because of the images of mental illness we see in the media.

What is mental illness?

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body.  Mental illness occurs when the brain, just like any other organ such as the heart, or the kidney, is not working the way it should.  Mental illness is a collection of disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.  The symptoms can range from loss of motivation and energy, changed sleep patterns, extreme mood swings, disturbances in thought or perception, or overwhelming obsessions or fears.  Mental illness interferes with relationships and affects a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis, often leading to social isolation.

Who gets mental illness?

Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and “happen to someone else.”  In fact, mental illnesses are common and widespread. Statistics show that one in every five Canadians will have a mental health problem at some point in their lives.  Mental illness affects males and females, young and old, and is found in every ethno-cultural and socio-economic group.

What causes mental illness?

Most health professionals and researchers believe that mental illness is usually the result of an interaction of physical, environmental, and social factors.   

Physical factors can include a person’s individual genetic make-up, which may put them at higher risk for developing a mental illness. Factors can also include physical trauma, such as a brain injury, or the misuse of substances such as street drugs or alcohol.

Environmental factors that can negatively impact a person’s mental health can include severe psychological trauma, such as war, or sexual abuse.  Social factors such as where we live, whether we have strong support networks (close family and friends who make us feel safe and who we can rely on), and our work environment impact our mental well-being.  The amount of stress people are under, and the duration of that stress can impact one’s mental health, especially in situations where individuals are unable to change their circumstances.

Do people recover from mental illness?

Yes, people can, and do, recover from mental illness.  Recovery is a very individual thing, and can be defined as ‘living well in the presence or absence of symptoms’.  Hope, healing, a sense of empowerment and social connections are key to an individual’s recovery from mental illness.  Recovery focussed social and psychiatric services, educational programs, affordable housing and financial assistance are also key to recovery.  And the earlier people get help, the better the outcome, so if you or someone you know appears to be developing the symptoms of a mental illness, it is important to seek help as soon as possible.