Mental health is a circumstance of psychological welfare in which a person understands his capabilities and possesses adequate coping mechanisms for everyday stress. According to the World Health Organization, however, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
To make things a bit clearer, some experts have tried coming up with different terms to explain the difference between ‘mental health’ and ‘mental health conditions’. Research shows that high levels of mental health are associated with increased learning, creativity and productivity, more pro-social behaviour and positive social relationships, and with improved physical health and life expectancy. In contrast, mental health conditions can cause distress, impact on day-to-day functioning and relationships, and are associated with poor physical health and premature death from suicide.
But it’s important to remember that mental health is complex. The fact that someone is not experiencing a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean their mental health is flourishing. Likewise, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while feeling well in many aspects of life. Ultimately, mental health is about being cognitively, emotionally and socially healthy – the way we think, feel and develop relationships – and not merely the absence of a mental health condition.
What is mental illness?
Mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behaviour, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.
Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment, many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.
Warning Signs and Symptoms
Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:
Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
Feelings of extreme highs and lows
Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
Strong feelings of anger
Strange thoughts (delusions)
Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
Numerous unexplained physical ailments
In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:
Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
Excessive complaints of physical ailments
Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
Frequent outbursts of anger
In Younger Children:
Changes in school performance
Poor grades despite strong efforts
Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
Persistent disobedience or aggression
Frequent temper tantrums
How to cope day-to-day
Accept your feelings
Despite the different symptoms and types of mental illnesses, many families who have a loved one with mental illness, share similar experiences. You may find yourself denying the warning signs, worrying what other people will think because of the stigma, or wondering what caused your loved one to become ill. Accept that these feelings are normal and common among families going through similar situations. Find out all you can about your loved one’s illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals. Share what you have learned with others.
Handling unusual behaviour
The outward signs of mental illness are often behavioural. A person may be extremely quiet or withdrawn. Conversely, he or she may burst into tears, have great anxiety or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started, some individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviours. When in public, these behaviours can be disruptive and difficult to accept. The next time you and your family member visit your doctor or mental health professional, discuss these behaviours and develop a strategy for coping. Your family member’s behaviour may be as dismaying to them as it is to you. Ask questions, listen with an open mind and be there to support them.
Establishing a support network
Whenever possible, seek support from friends and family members. If you feel you cannot discuss your situation with friends or other family members, find a self-help or support group. These groups provide an opportunity for you to talk to other people who are experiencing the same type of problems. They can listen and offer valuable advice.
Therapy can be beneficial for both the individual with mental illness and other family members. A mental health professional can suggest ways to cope and better understand your loved one’s illness. When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk to a few professionals so you can choose the person that is right for you and your family. It may take time until you are comfortable, but in the long run, you will be glad you sought help.
Taking time out
It is common for the person with mental illness to become the focus of family life. When this happens, other members of the family may feel ignored or resentful. Some may find it difficult to pursue their own interests. If you are the caregiver, you need some time for yourself. Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry. If you schedule time for yourself, it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one. Being physically and emotionally healthy helps you to help others.
“Many families who have a loved one with mental illness share similar experiences” It is important to remember that there is hope for recovery and that with treatment many people with mental illness return to a productive and fulfilling life.
Mental Illness in the Family: Part 1 Recognizing the Warning Signs & How to Cope is one in a series of pamphlets on helping family members with mental illness.