What are mental health and mental illness?

May 1, 2017

Having good mental health means generally feeling good and being able to cope with everyday life at home and at work. Positive mental health means finding that balance in all parts of your life: social, physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological.

Mental illnesses are conditions that can cause changes in your thinking and behaviour. They can cause distress and make it hard to enjoy everyday life. Mental illnesses are complicated conditions that develop from a combination of genetics, biology, environment, and life experiences.

Mental illnesses can be treated and most people who have them can recover and lead happy and productive lives.

There are many different mental illnesses. Mood disorders like depression and anxiety affect the way you feel and think. People with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia might hear voices or have visions. Traumatic events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. These are just some examples of the many types of mental illness.

The Canadian Mental Health Association has excellent factsheets on mental health and mental illnesses, how they affect people, and treatment options.

The Centre for Addition and Mental Health also has many useful resources.

Feeling good, feeling bad—and everything in between

You can have a mental illness and feel great. If you don’t have a mental illness, there will probably still be times when you feel bad. Mental health and mental illness exist on a continuum.

Mood fluctuations, stress and worry, and feeling down at a difficult time are all common human experiences. On their own, they are not signs of mental illness.

But there are differences between feeling sad and finding yourself avoiding social situations because of your sadness, being frequently irritable and withdrawn, and having so little energy you are unable to get out of bed. If symptoms become severe and disrupt your life, that may be a sign that you should seek help.

This mental health continuum chart shows different degrees of mental health and mental illness. Most people move back and forth along this line at different stages of their lives.