Understanding and preventing
- Just what is mental health?
- And mental illness?
- Who suffers from mental illness?
- Preventing mental illness
Just what is mental health?
Is mental health simply the absence of mental illness? Of course not.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The WHO also defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her society.”
To be in good mental health, we must strike a balance between the social, physical, mental, economic, and spiritual aspects of our lives. Achieving and maintaining this equilibrium requires constant effort. Life’s difficulties and challenges sometimes tip the scales to one side or the other, and it takes work to bring everything back into balance. This balance is the key to good mental health.
And mental illness?
Mental illness is a particular set of signs that can be observed by the family and friends of people with mental illness or by the sufferers themselves, as well as symptoms that only the latter can feel. Together, these signs and symptoms have specific meaning for doctors and other health professionals, which allows them to diagnose the illness. The diagnostic process is similar to the one used for physical illness or injury. For example, after falling, you may have a visible limp (sign) and feel pain (symptom). After examining you and doing the appropriate tests, your doctor might tell you that you’ve broken your ankle.
With mental illness, the signs and symptoms can include changes in one’s thoughts, mood, or behavior leading to a state of distress or pain and serious dysfunction.
As in the case with physical illness, these expressions of mental illness can vary from light to severe, depending on the illness, the individual, and the individual’s family and socioeconomic background. And like physical illness, mental health problems can take various forms, including mood-altering illnesses, schizophrenia, anxiety and personality disorders, food disorders, and addictions to drugs, gaming, etc.
Who suffers from mental illness?
Mental illness, like physical illness, does not discriminate and can affect anyone, no matter what their nationality or ethnic background, or whether they are employed or unemployed, professional or blue-collar, rich or poor, educated or not. According to the WHO, by 2020 depression alone will be the second leading cause of illness and disability after heart disease. Therefore the vast majority of Quebecers will one day be affected by mental illness—whether their own or that of a relative, friend, or coworker.
Preventing mental illness
Many risk factors pose a threat to mental health. Although it is difficult or impossible to act on some of them, there are others we can do something about. For example, it’s impossible to change one’s genetic makeup or certain negative biological characteristics. But steps can be taken to reduce a person’s stress level by changing their living environment (family, school, work), the way they handle stress, and their living conditions (income, physical environment, etc.).
People at risk
We can provide support to certain people who are more at risk of developing mental illness: low income earners, single mothers who are the sole family support, children and adolescents who have experienced family difficulties or been exposed to violence at school, adults who are unemployed or have lost their jobs, workers who do repetitive work and have little decision making power, women who have been victims of sexual aggression or domestic violence, and frail seniors who live alone.
Maintaining good mental health
Many factors affect mental health. They can be biological (stress, genetic makeup) or personal (childhood experiences, self esteem and other personal resources, living habits), or linked to a person’s environment, be it physical (home, neighborhood), social (family and community ties), or economic (socio-economic status, living conditions).
To stay in good mental health, we can:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well and getting plenty of exercise and sleep
- Enjoy positive relationships with family and friends
- Find recreational activities we like and make time to participate in them
- Develop strategies for handling stress, especially in the workplace
- In times of difficulty (loss of a loved one, job, etc.), seek support from friends and family or from specialized resources.
Mental health doesn’t just depend on individuals. Public policy aimed at improving living conditions (income, housing, etc.) and living environments (school, workplace, work-family balance) has a major influence on the population’s mental health.