What is Mental Illness?

There are several categories of mental illness, including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Affective Disorders (bipolar illness, unipolar depression, other forms of depression)
  • Personality disorders
  • Anxiety disorders.

Of course, many co-occur with other conditions, so there is not usually a clear diagnostic picture. This may be why in the past, some research indicated people might experience symptoms for several months, even years, before the diagnosis was made. Today the diagnostic criteria and “the state of the art” of medicine have reduced that period considerably.

Anxiety disorders are the most common; affecting one in nine people at some period of their lives. What are the conditions known as the anxiety disorders?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – ongoing, extreme tension that interferes with daily functioning. Constant worry, even when there is nothing to worry about.

Panic Disorder – overwhelming feeling of being in danger, with several physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, chest pains, dizziness, nausea, chills, hot feverish feeling, etc. For most people these episodes come on with little or no warning, so the fear of having one may prevent a person from going out, driving, attending a certain activity, for example, where an attack happened previously.

Phobias – uncontrollable, irrational, and ongoing fear of a specific place, thing, or activity. For example, many people may be afraid of poisonous snakes, and this is quite rational. But some are just as afraid of garter snakes, or house spiders, which are not in any way dangerous. To the extent that the fear is great, and interferes with daily activities, it can be seen as a phobia.

Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder – Significant or extreme discomfort associated with social situations. Many people are shy or anxious about going to social gatherings. This condition is reflecting a much more extreme reaction, almost to the point of the symptoms expressed above in the section on Panic Disorder. NB: this is the condition most often associated with suicidal thoughts, which is evidence of the pain experienced by people with this condition.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Obsessions are frequently-occurring irrational thoughts that cause great anxiety but cannot be controlled by reasoning. Compulsions are rituals that a person feels compelled to go through in attempting to control his or her anxieties. Examples of compulsive behaviours might be: finger tapping of a certain duration, excessive cleaning, always walking into a room in a certain direction.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – A person who has survived a severe physical or emotional event, will, if he/she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder , re-experience itt frequently through flashbacks or realistic nightmares. Other symptoms may include sleep disorders, feelings of guilt, hopelessness, depression, feeling numb or detached, and unable to experience usual feelings of caring or love, for example. Often with anxiety disorders there is a co-existing disorder, such as clinical depression or/and substance abuse.

To find out more about these and other disorders, ask your physician. You can also call our office and ask to have information mailed, or borrow a public education video on a particular subject. It is possible to participate in an education-focused screening to determine possible symptoms you may be experiencing.

How Common is Mental Illness?

  • Schizophrenia affects 1% of the Canadian population.
  • Anxiety disorders affect 5% of the household population, causing mild to severe impairment.
  • Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds.
  • Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age.
  • The mortality rate due to suicide among men is four times the rate among women.

What Causes Mental Illness? 

  • A complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors causes mental illnesses.
  • Almost one half (49%) of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem.
  •  Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses presents a serious barrier, not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community.
  • Mental illnesses can be treated effectively.

Who is affected?

  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.
  • 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures.
  • Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
  • About 1% of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder (or “manic depression”).

Cited from: Canadian Mental Health Association 

What is the economic cost?

  • The economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health care system was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 – $4.7 billion in care, and $3.2 billion in disability and early death.
  • An additional $6.3 billion was spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health care system.
  • In 1999, 3.8% of all admissions in general hospitals (1.5 million hospital days) were due to anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, personality disorders, eating disorders and suicidal behavior.

Sources: The Report on Mental Illness in Canada, October 2002. EBIC 1998 (Health Canada 2002), Stephens et al., 2001

The most frequent reason identified (by far) by Canadians in a survey of 1600 Canadians in four geographic regions, for why they would not seek professional help for a perceived mental disorder, was the stigma they associated with having a disorder, and someone’s finding out they were in treatment. This despite the fact that depression, for example, is more treatable than most physical illnesses, but without treatment is very likely to be ongoingly disabling.

Click here for specific mental illness details.

If you wonder about yourself, or someone you care about, you should ask your doctor for an assessment.

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