Editor's note: This story launches a mental health series in The Vital Beat to mark Mental Health Week.
When it comes to mental health, too few of us understand what it means.
”Mental health and mental illness are often used as if they mean the same thing, but they don’t,” says Stan Preston, Program Manager, Mental Health, Misericordia Community Hospital.
Mental health encompasses our overall functioning and psychological well-being, including our ability to cope with positive and negative emotions. It also includes how we create and manage relationships, says Stan.
“Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health,” Stan says. “Not everyone will experience mental illness, but everyone will have periods of time when they struggle with their mental well-being, just as we have physical health issues from time to time.”
Good mental health is holistic
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says good mental health is “having a sense of purpose, strong relationships, feeling connected to our communities, knowing who we are, coping with stress and enjoying life.”
This includes resilience, which is having good ways to deal with your feelings and enjoy life even when things are challenging. “You can cope with stressors and have a sense of purpose and still look to the future,” Stan says.
Mental illness affects our daily functioning
CMHA defines mental illnesses as “health problems that affect the way we think about ourselves, relate to others and interact with the world around us. They affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Mental illnesses can disrupt a person’s life or create challenges, but with the right supports, a person can get back on a path to recovery and wellness.”
In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness, and by age 40, half of us will have experienced a mental illness or currently have one, says CMHA.
Stan says mental illness can take many forms and may range in severity, but they all affect how we think, feel and interact with others.
“It includes a range of disorders and significant changes to our thoughts, moods and behaviours that create stress or impede functioning, and this includes addictions,” says Janice Burkholder, Registered Nurse on the Misericordia’s Mental Health unit.
Misconceptions are still prevalent
People may equate happiness with good mental health, but that’s not necessarily accurate. Similarly, a period of feeling mentally unwell doesn’t mean a person has a mental illness.
Another particularly damaging belief is that a person with a mental illness will always struggle.
“People can and do recover from mental illness and can live well,” Stan says. “That hope is really essential for anyone with mental illness or people who are seeking help. There is recovery.”
Steps to improve and maintain good mental health
Janice and Stan say there are many habits and activities that can improve or maintain our mental health. Exercising and eating well, enjoying humour, participating in activities we like, getting enough sleep, being grateful and managing stress can all help us stay mentally well. Friends and family can also go a long way, Janice says.
“Solid relationships and having people around that we can talk to can really enrich our lives and keep us grounded.”
Times we are more likely to struggle
We are more likely to experience mental health issues at certain points in our lives.
“Any major life event or change can bring added stress, even if it’s a good change,” Janice says. “For example, the birth of a child is a joyful time, but it’s a big change in responsibility.”
The same applies to retiring, starting or graduating from post-secondary education, getting married, starting a career or getting divorced.
Significant physical changes can also increase a person’s risk of experiencing mental health issues.
“Developing a chronic illness, or experiencing a major medical event such as a stroke or heart attack can impact their mental health greatly,” Stan says.
Signs a person may be experiencing mental health issues
While there are many warning signs, Janice says changes to your normal functioning that persist over time can signal a concern that needs to be assessed.
“You may notice it’s affecting your ability to go to work, enjoy your friends and do your normal activities,” she says. “You might feel overwhelmed or hopeless and notice changes to your sleep, appetite and energy. You might also avoid being with people.”
Increased negative or critical thoughts are also common when a person’s mental health is declining.
“If loved ones are sharing concerns with you, that’s often a red flag to take a pause and get further assessment. If they notice before you do, it may have gone on for a while.”
Getting help is critical
Stan estimates only 30 to 40 per cent of people with mental health issues seek help, and many of those people wait until they are in crisis.
It’s important to see a physician if you’re struggling.
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