In any given year, one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem. These can include mental disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety disorders. However, only one third of those who experience such mental health issues report getting treatment.
This is a serious concern, particularly since out of the 4,000 Canadians who die of suicide each year, the vast majority suffer from a mental disorder or illness. The stakes are very high. Mental disorders and illnesses affect all Canadians at some time, either directly or indirectly through contact with a family member, friend or colleague.
What does it mean to have a mental disorder or illness?
A mental disorder or illness is a diagnosed state of being. A mental health episode may be more short-term, such as a depressive episode that is only sustained for a certain period of time. For example, the death of a spouse may trigger a depressive episode, while clinical depression can be a more long-term state.
Official diagnoses of mental health disorders can only be done by physicians or other healthcare professionals. These include psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health counselors.
Mental disorders include emotional and psychological disorders, such as:
- Addiction Disorders (alcoholism, drug addiction, as well as behavioral addictions like gambling addiction, sex/porn addiction, video game addiction, etc.)
- Anxiety Disorders (including Panic Disorder)
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar Disorder (aka Manic Depression Disorder)
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personality Disorder)
- Eating Disorders (including anorexia and bulimia)
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Social Phobias
How do you know if you have a mental health disorder?
Mental disorders are thought to occur out of an intricate combination of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors. They are no more someone's "fault" than cancer is.
Mental health issues can be terrifying and stressful not just for the person suffering from them, but for those around them. For example, a mental disorder like schizophrenia often presents in late adolescence, meaning everything seems "normal" until then. At that point, the person can begin to display symptoms like insomnia and pacing, hearing voices in their head, hyperactivity (talking quickly or a lot), paranoia (thinking "they" are always listening or spying), and more. This is very disorienting both for that person as well as family members.
The same is true of signs of mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders - it's alarming to deal with or watch someone you love deal with difficult symptoms, especially when you don't know what to do about it. Signs of depression can include loss of appetite, listlessness, suicidality (talking about or thinking about suicide), and withdrawing/isolating. Signs of an anxiety disorder include panic attacks, insomnia, feelings of doom, nausea, and trembling.
If you are concerned that you or someone you love may have a mental disorder, the first thing to know is that you are not alone. Millions of Canadians deal with this every year, and there is good help available.
The second is to understand that while there is quality information available online and in books, the only way to know for sure if you have a diagnosable mental disorder is to seek out a a mental health professional.
What do you do if you think you have a mental health issue?
Canadians are more likely to consult their family physician about a mental health issue than any other healthcare provider. However, in many cases it can be better to seek care from a mental health clinic or provider that is more familiar with mental health disorders and illnesses and can identify whether signs of depression are clinical depression or just an episode. Because they have more experience, they're also often able to direct you to better and more appropriate care.
It is a brave act to confront mental health issues, particularly since there is still a stigma about mental disorders and problems like anxiety disorders and other issues. For example, a recent study showed that only 63% of those hospitalized for depression got a follow-up visit from a doctor within 30 days of discharge, while 99% of those who had suffered heart failure received a visit. Because mental illness does not present physically, it can seem less "real", and/or harder to address or treat.
The stigma and generalized reluctance to be open about mental health does a disservice to everyone - individuals, families, and society. The more openly we discuss, acknowledge, and seek to proactively address the massive impact and importance of mental health, the better.
How do you treat a mental health disorder or illness?
There are a number of ways to treat mental disorders. The critical thing is to get the right care for you, and that may not look exactly like what it looks like for someone else.
The most common course of treatment for mental disorders is a mix of prescription medications and therapy. Common medications for mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder include antidepressants, antipsychotic medications, anti-anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers. Research is also clear that medication is far more effective when combined with therapy.
Therapy can include individual as well as group therapy. Popular therapeutic modalities for mental health disorders include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
In addition to the traditional methods of addressing mental health illnesses, a number of alternative modalities have gained popularity over the last few decades, and many such alternatives result in far fewer side effects than pharmaceutical medications. These include:
- Acupuncture: Particularly effective for those struggling with depression, PTSD and ADD/ADHD, regular acupuncture stimulates the body's own ability to heal itself, leaving recipients more relaxed and able to come back into balance.
- Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR): An evidence-based psychotherapy practice that helps alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Very high efficacy rate, particularly for PTSD and mental disorders whose root cause is trauma.
- Meditation: Much research supports meditation as a low-cost yet strikingly effective treatment for mental health issues like anxiety disorders and depression. Meditation methods that include brain entrainment involving binaural beats audio technology are particularly recommended.
- Network Spinal Analysis (NSA): Another evidence-based form of somatic therapy, NSA is a form of chiropractic that involves light touches on the spine, cuing the brain to release old tension and create new wellness strategies.
- Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT): Primarily for those with severe mental illnesses, ECT delivers controlled electric shocks to the brain. This can induce positive changes in brain chemistry through the activation of specific neuronal pathways.
The way forward
Most Canadians suffering from mental health disorders, including anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder, are not dangerous to others (they're actually more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it). And adults with severe mental disorders and illnesses die up to 25 years earlier than those without. It's vital to address mental health issues as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
The most important part of recovering from a mental disorder, whether an addiction disorder like drug addiction, an eating disorder like anorexia, clinical depression, or an anxiety disorder, is acknowledging the issue and seeking treatment. You can never recover from what you are unwilling to face.
Once you get the right treatment and care, it is then a matter of being diligent about recovery, and continuing to refine what works. For example, research shows that a combination of meditating and engaging in aerobic activity for 30 minutes a day, twice a week, can decrease symptoms of depression by up to 40%. For continued recovery from depression, this habit of meditation and exercise would need to become a lifelong practice (not a one-time solution).
A mental disorder is not a hopeless diagnosis, and having hope of having a "normal" life isn't unrealistic - it is appropriate and possible. With help, those suffering from mental disorders can see real improvement quickly (some in as little as weeks). For most, it takes more time, but the results can be just as dramatic.
Millions of people around the world grapple with mental disorders and illnesses. Those who choose to receive treatment and care and commit to their own growth can and do go on to live lives of purpose, joy and dignity. A vibrant, healthy life awaits.