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The difference between mental health and mental illness

There are still many taboos surrounding mental illness. As a result, it is not always understood and there are many misconceptions about it.


The difference between mental health and mental illness

First, let’s take a look at how mental health differs from mental illness. Page 2 of the document The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada defines mental health and mental illness as follows :

Mental health is the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges that we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections and personal dignity.

Mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour—or some combination thereof—associated with significant distress and impaired functioning. The symptoms of mental illness vary from mild to severe, depending on the type of mental illness, the individual, the family and the socioeconomic environment.


A few characteristics of the most common mental illnesses

Schizophrenia : This mental illness is accompanied by a loss of contact with reality, delusions and changes in thinking, language and behaviour. Those affected are often unable to distinguish between reality and their own perception of events.

Bipolar disorder : This disorder involves oscillation between two poles of emotion. It includes recurrent, abnormal, persistent and uncontrollable mood swings. The emotional chaos that results from this illness can have serious social consequences.

Severe and persistent depression : This illness affects memory, thinking, judgement and mindset. It has an impact on the way we feel, think, sleep and behave. Unlike temporary depression caused by the sorrows of life, those affected are unable to overcome the deep feeling of sadness.

Borderline personality disorder : This disorder refers to psychological and social dysfunction. Those affected display ingrained maladaptive behaviours. Their personality is abnormal, with regards to being unable to balance their judgement, emotions and behaviours. Their relationships with others are often very unstable.

Anxiety disorders : Anxiety disorders can be distinguished from one another based on what triggers the anxiety and the intensity and duration of the symptoms. The most common forms of anxiety include phobia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The latter is a disorder affecting thoughts and behaviour. It is triggered when anxiety and uncertainties become obsessions. Those affected see involuntary repetitive thoughts or images appear in their mind. They are aware of the absurdity of their thoughts or behaviours.


How to respond to a loved one’s mental illness

If you suspect a loved one has a mental illness, you should avoid trying to find a diagnosis or solutions on your own. Your job is to encourage the person to seek help. It will be up to specialists to determine the illness and its treatment.

Diagnosis of a mental illness is a life-altering event for the individual, their family and their friends.

When someone close to us has a mental illness, it is only natural to want to understand and know more about it. Here are some of the things you may want to know :

  • The diagnosis and the symptoms associated with it
  • The different types of treatment or therapy available
  • How the illness affects behaviour
  • What to do if the person is not well
  • How to address this issue with the person
  • The services available in the community to support you

To learn more about mental illness, you can visit the links below or contact us with any questions you may have, no matter how delicate or complex.


Things to remember

Mental health should not be confused with mental illness. There are different types of mental illness, and their effects will vary from person to person based on different factors.

As a friend, spouse, sibling, parent or co-worker, your role is not to take the place of medical experts. Just the opposite : If your loved one has been behaving in a way that worries you for some time now, you should encourage them to see a doctor.

The best way to help them is to try to understand what is happening to them and support them to the best of your ability. In order to do that, you will need to learn more about their illness.

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