Don’t eat too many sweets. Stop playing video games. Play outside. Brush your teeth. From a young age, Canadian children are conditioned to think about their health. As a child, it was made obvious to me how important my physical health was to my general well-being. However, it wasn’t until I started university that I learned that my mental health mattered just as much. I began seeing articles on Facebook that suggested I could improve my mental health with diet and exercise. Curiously, I gave these articles a read. However, not one single article explained what mental health was. At that point in my life, mental health became a buzz-word. I spewed advice I learned from the internet to my parents, but they kept saying, if it was so important wouldn’t they have mentioned it to me in school?
Despite the fact that 20% of teenagers suffer from some form of mental illness, mental health is not a part of the school curriculum. This month’s featured topic is mental health. Much like how physical health refers to our physical well-being, mental health refers to our psychological well-being. This spans how we think, perceive, feel and interact with the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own 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 community.”
When an individual’s mental state is not akin to what is normal, they are assessed as having a mental illness. Specifically, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines mental illnesses based on symptoms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual gives a lists of symptoms, their duration and is used by clinicians to diagnose individuals with mental health illnesses.
Those with mental health illnesses often have difficulties interacting with the world. Some may find it difficult to get themselves out of bed in the morning, or even the thought of socializing with others could make them feel extremely anxious. Some less common signs of mental illnesses include increased sensitivity to stimuli like sounds, apathy, and unusual beliefs, for example, that one possesses special powers. It is important to note that these problems are not short-lived. It is natural for people to have spurts of highs and lows that can often intrude daily life and make routine or mundane things seem almost impossible to do.
Mental illnesses are not all “in the mind”. Advice is often given to people to “pick themselves up”, or “to stop being obsessive-compulsive”. However, these advices are often misleading. Just like how you cannot suddenly stop being physically ill, you also cannot stop being mentally ill. In fact, mental health conditions are often associated with physical symptoms as well. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues come with physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, inability to concentrate, and delusions. These psychological illnesses are very “real” and have a biological basis. This means that there is a genetic component to these illnesses and it’s not just environmental. For example, individuals with depression have a lower amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain. Serotonin is in part responsible for feelings of happiness as well as reward circuitry. Furthermore, certain regions of the brain of individuals with depression are smaller in size compared to those without depression.
Mental health issues manifest itself in many ways. It is not only genetics or environmental factors that cause mental illnesses, but interactions between the two. There are cases of genetically identical twins where one twin suffers from schizophrenia and the other seems mentally healthy. It is hypothesized that both twins were genetically susceptible to schizophrenia, but some environmental factor triggered the onset of the illness.
With the articles coming out this month, we hope that you can become better informed about mental health, find out what to do if you think you or someone you know is having problems, and fight the stigma around mental health.