Mental health

Our mental health is an important resource for daily life. It provides a foundation for doing our best and feeling good in school, work, and life. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Mental health involves our ability to think, feel, act, and interact in a way that we can enjoy our lives and cope with the challenges that arise. Mental health also involves how we think about and appraise ourselves, our lives, and the people we know and care about. It involves our ability to make realistic sense of—and react meaningfully to—the world around us. It affects our ability to make choices and decisions.

Mental health is not something that we either have or do not have. Rather, it runs along a continuum, from functioning at our best to experiencing mental health problems. It is known as positive mental health. This is when we are functioning at our best.  Positive mental health is also sometimes called flourishing.

When we are flourishing, we have psychological, emotional and social well-being.  Psychological well-being describes when we feel that our life has direction, we have trusting personal relationships and are able to manage our environment.  Emotional well-being describes when we feel a sense of calm and satisfaction with our life overall. Social well-being is when we take an interest in social life and have a sense of belonging and comfort within a community.

Our mental health status is affected by our interaction with our environments.  The environments in which we live, work, learn, play and pray affect whether and to what extent we have or can get the things we need, feel valued and respected, have people who support us, and can take part in our community and society.  The same environment affects each person’s mental health in unique ways.  This is because we each see and react to things differently.  Even the same person may be affected differently by the same circumstances or things at different times, depending on what else is going on in their life and how able they are to cope.

Mental health promotion includes actions that help people take care of their well-being as well as actions that support communities create environments which make it easier for people to thrive.

Why is mental health important for young people and their health?

Mental health contributes to young people’s sense of well-being, safety, and mastery over their future. It helps them achieve their goals, play a role in their communities, build and maintain relationships, and cope with life’s ups and downs. When young people are experiencing positive mental health, they thrive and can cope with the changes and stressors of adolescence. On the other hand, mental health problems– such as stress, depression, and anxiety – have been linked to tobacco use, substance use, and other behaviours that can harm young people’s physical, mental, and sexual health.

What are the characteristics of a young person with positive mental health?

When young people are mentally healthy, they are:

  • able to enjoy life. They are able to live in the moment. They are able to learn from the past and plan for the future. They focus on what they can influence or control, rather than things they cannot predict or change.
  • resilient. They are able to bounce back from challenges and are optimistic. They keep their perspective when managing serious life events.
  • balanced. They are able to juggle competing demands and aspects of their lives. They recognize when their balance is off and make changes to restore it.
  • striving to achieve their full potential. They recognize and develop their strengths and interests.
  • flexible. They are able to feel and express a range of emotions, and are able to change their expectations and approaches to solve problems and feel better.

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Mental health is sometimes confused with mental illness. Mental illnesses are physical changes in the brain that can alter thinking, mood, or behaviour, causing distress and impaired functioning. Here are some examples of mental illness that a doctor can diagnose:

  • mood disorders, such as major depression and bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa
  • psychosis
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • substance-related disorders

Just like we all have physical health but can be without injuries or illness, we all have mental health but we can be without mental illness.  

People can even have poor mental health or a mental health problem but not meet the criteria for a mental illness. People who are experiencing mental illness can also experience positive mental health.  In fact, positive mental health helps people effectively cope with the symptoms of mental illnesses.

According to Wishart, one in five Canadians will have a mental illness during their lifetime. Many mental illnesses emerge during adolescence and early adulthood. The earlier arising problems are addressed, the greater the likelihood that they can be prevented or their severity reduced.

What are mental health problems?

A mental health problem is when someone is having difficulties with some cognitive, social, or emotional abilities, but they do not meet the criteria for a mental illness. Mental health problems tend to happen when people are stressed or going through hard times.  

There are two broad kinds of mental health problems:

1. Externalized mental health problems are mental health problems that are turned outwards. These problems are expressed as risk-taking, such as delinquent behaviour, violence, bullying, excessive screen time, gambling, tobacco use, and substance use.

2. Internalized mental health problems are mental health problems that are turned inwards. They are expressed as emotional health problems, such as depression, low self-esteem, low body image, and psychological distress. Some signs of psychological distress are:

  • feeling constantly stressed
  • losing sleep over worry
  • being unable to overcome difficulties
  • losing self-confidence
  • feeling unhappy, “blue,” or depressed
  • being unable to concentrate
  • being unable to enjoy daily activities
  • thinking of one’s self as worthless
  • being unable to face problems
  • not feeling useful
  • being incapable of making decisions

How are stress and coping mechanisms related to mental health?

Having good mental health is a balancing act. Each of us must find the right balance for the social, physical, spiritual, economic, and mental aspects of our lives. Finding balance and staying in balance is a lifelong learning process.

Most people experience many ups and downs over the course of their lives. Mental health problems can happen when our coping mechanisms are not working effectively and when our personal balance is thrown off repeatedly or for an extended period.

The stressors we face can affect our personal balance. Common stressors include:

  • physical stressors such as injuries, illnesses, and lack of access to basic needs such as housing and food
  • social stressors such as conflicts and rejection
  • intellectual stressors such as not understanding a subject being taught at school
  • emotional stressors such as the death of a loved one
  • spiritual stressors such as moral conflicts and lacking a sense of purpose

How we view the things that cause us stress affects how we react and cope. Some people see stressors as a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to grow. Others feel defeated by stressors. We may also view stressors differently at different times, depending on what else is going on in our lives and how able we are to cope.

People use a range of coping strategies to manage their stressors. The coping strategies we use depend on our personal preferences and experiences. Our gender, religious background, and culture also play a role. Many people have more than one strategy they can draw on.

Some coping strategies are healthier than others. For instance, thinking positively about how things will turn out is healthier than worrying about it. Talking with friends and family is healthier than withdrawing. Getting some exercise is healthier than eating too much.

Here are some examples of positive coping strategies that can help young people manage stress:

  • Take care of physical health by exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep.
  • Avoid substances that can have a negative effect on emotions, such as caffeine.
  • Learn to identify emotions and their causes.
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as focusing on breathing.
  • Replace negative self-talk with thoughts that are positive and supportive or at least neutral.
  • Be optimistic and think positively.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations, and work toward them.
  • Learn such skills as time management and how to break large tasks into manageable pieces.
  • Build a supportive network of friends and family.
  • Ask for help when it’s needed.

What causes stress and distress for young people?

Young people experience many changes as they move through their teenaged years. These changes can affect their mental health.  The physical changes of adolescence - such as fluctuating hormones and ongoing brain development - can affect young people’s emotions, their relationships and how they see their self.

Adolescence is also a time when young people are maturing emotionally and building their social skills. Relationships with family and peers often change. Peers become increasingly important. Peer relationships are often positive and beneficial—a way for youth to learn social and personal skills and try out different identities. They can also be a source of stress. For instance, a young person might have to deal with conflicts with friends, being bullied, relationship problems, a break-up, or being rejected.

Other common sources of stress for young people include family conflicts, school-related workload and problems, pressure about their future, and having more extracurricular activities than they have time for.

Some young people experience additional sources of stress:

  • Newcomer youth often have to deal with separation from friends and extended family in their country of birth. They may face language barriers or feel like an outsider. There may be stress if their previous schooling is not recognized or was very different from their Canadian experience. There may be family stress if their parents are unemployed or underemployed.
  • Youth who move to a new community may have to deal with the stress of fitting into a new environment and leaving friends behind.
  • Youth who belong to groups that face social and economic exclusion may be confronted with prejudice, stigma and discrimination.
  • Youth from low-income families may face stresses related to not having their basic needs met or living in an unsafe neighbourhood.
  • Family violence is a huge source of stress. This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.

What is mental health stigma?

When a young person, or someone they love, has a mental health problem, mental illness or related concerns such as substance use problems, the young person or even their whole family may face stigma and even discrimination.

Mental health stigma can come at a young person from many directions. They may face negative attitudes and stereotypes in the media, the community, and from friends and family. They may face barriers and discrimination at school, work, and when seeking health services. The prejudice, stigma and discrimination they face can lead to isolation and even poorer health.

Youth sometimes internalize the negative attitudes they face in society. They may feel bad about themselves, blame themselves for the challenges they face, or exclude themselves from group activities and social events because they do not feel welcome.

Mental health stigma can also keep young people from asking for help. They may want to keep their mental health problems, or a loved one’s problems, a secret rather than face the risk of stigma.

Mental health stigma may be just one of many layers of stigma and discrimination that a young person faces. They may also face stigma and discrimination because of their sex, ethno-racial background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or newcomer status. These layers of stigma build on one another and can make things worse. These other layers may have contributed to the young person’s mental health problems in the first place.

What can people do to overcome mental health stigma?

Here are seven actions that you can take to help overcome mental health stigma:

  1. Know the facts. Keep learning about mental health and mental illnesses. Learn how to improve mental health and well-being. Learn how to promote healthy, resilient, inclusive communities.
  2. Be aware of your attitudes and behaviour. Take time to reflect on your own attitudes and behaviour toward people with mental health problems or mental illness.
  3. Choose your words carefully. Words are powerful. They can hurt others and they can affect how other people think. Avoid using negative or hurtful words related to mental illness. Focus on the person rather than the mental health problem or illness. Don’t let the illness define the person. For instance, don’t say, “She is a schizophrenic.” Instead, say, “She has schizophrenia” or “She is a person who experiences schizophrenia.”
  4. Educate others. Share what you know about mental health and mental illness. Promote positive and compassionate attitudes toward people with mental health problems and mental illness. Challenge the myths and stereotypes.
  5. Focus on the positive. Having a mental health problem or illness is only one part of who a person is. Recognize that person’s strengths and resilience and the contributions he or she is making.
  6. Support people. Treat people who have mental health problems or illness with dignity and respect. Support their choices, their efforts to get well, and their participation in shaping programs, services, and policies for mental health and mental illness.
  7. Include everyone. Feeling accepted and respected is important for everyone’s health and well-being. Respect everyone’s right to take an equal part in society and realize his or her full potential.

Visit the Toolboxtools for resources on youth and mental health and mental illness.

Documents sourced in this section can be found here.