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Mental and Behavioural Health

Frequently Asked Questions

​What is mental health?

Positive mental health means finding that balance in all parts of your life: social, physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, and mental. When this balance is upset or changed it can often be a challenge to find that healthy balance again.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a term that covers many mental health issues. A mental health problem might also be called a mental disorder, poor mental health, a nervous breakdown, burnout, or a psychiatric illness to name a few.

Mental health problems are health conditions. There are often changes in thinking, mood, and/or behaviour (or a combination of these). The person may be distressed and/or have impaired functioning. For example, the person may have trouble going to work or doing daily activities.

Mental health problems can cause a big change in the way a person thinks, their emotions, the way they act, and their ability to work and carry on with their usual relationships.

How many people are affected by mental illness?

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 3 Canadians at some point in their life.

Each year, about 1 in 5 Canadians will go through a mental health problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 6 out of the 10 leading causes of “years lived with disability” in developed regions are related to mental health problems.

What are the more common types of mental illnesses or mental health problems?

Although there are many types of mental health problems, the most common ones are depression and anxiety.

Depression affects about 2 million Canadians age 20 years and older at some point in their lives. Depression is often seen with other mental health problems and with physical illnesses like heart disease, stroke, and physical disabilities. About 2.5 million Canadians 20 years and older live with an anxiety disorder.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic depression) are less common but can have a huge affect to the quality of life of people living with these illnesses.

What causes mental illness?

There is no one cause of mental illness or mental health problems. It is most likely several factors coming together. For example, we are learning that many of the major mental illnesses involve chemical imbalances in the body.

Mental health problems are:

  1. biological: linked with problems with chemistry in the brain or other body system
  2. psychological: linked with issues with thought or emotion
  3. social: linked with life events and stresses

Mental health professionals look at all three of these when they design a plan for dealing with the problem or illness.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, biological factors that may affect whether someone becomes seriously mentally ill include:

  • damage done before birth
  • birth trauma
  • viral infection
  • brain chemistry

Genetics may play a part, too. Studies show that close relatives of someone with schizophrenia or an affective disorder (like bipolar disorder) are much more likely to have the same illness. However, people don’t inherit the illness itself. They just inherit the tendency to get it.

Psychological and social factors could include:

  • lack of support from relationships
  • child abuse
  • family violence
  • unemployment
  • major changes in life

Is mental illness a “real” disease?

Yes! Mental illness is no different than cancer or diabetes. It has both genetic and biological causes and can be treated.

How do I help a friend, family member, someone I know, or co-worker who I believe may have a mental health problem?

Knowing the signs and symptoms of someone with a mental health problem is the first step. Mental Health First Aid Canada, which is based on the model of medical first aid, teaches people how to help someone showing signs of a mental health problem or going through a mental health crisis.

One of the ways you can help someone who you think is going through a mental health problem is encourage them to see their family doctor, a psychologist, or a qualified mental health therapist.

Another way to help someone going through a mental health problem is to simply listen (without judging) and reassure them that you will help them get the help they need.

Why is it so hard to talk about mental illness?

It’s hard because there’s such a stigma attached to it. A stigma is the product of myth and misunderstanding. It causes people to fear and reject those who live with mental illness. Society doesn’t view mental illness and physical illness in the same way. Just as people can recover from heart disease and recover from their condition, they can recover from mental illness to lead full, balanced, and productive lives.

If a person is strong, can’t they beat mental illness?

Mental illness is not caused because someone is weak or there is something wrong with who they are as a person. A person can’t just “snap out of it”.

Who is more susceptible to mental illness?

Mental illness can happen to anyone, of any age, culture, education, and income level.

Once someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness, will they ever get better?

With support and treatment, people with mental illnesses can lead full and productive lives.

I care for a family member who has a mental illness. Where can I find more information about how to take care of them?

Taking care of a family member or friend with a mental illness can be very stressful. Giving the best care possible for that person—as well as taking good care of yourself - is important. For more information about how to take care of a loved one with a mental illness, please contact the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline.

For information about looking after you, see:

How can I tell if someone is suicidal?

There is no clear list of warning signs for someone who is thinking about suicide. However, sudden changes in actions, behaviour, or attitude are some of the warning signs. On the other hand, someone who is thinking about suicide may not show any warning signs.

If you are concerned that someone you know may be at risk, ask if they are thinking about suicide. One of the ways to get help fast is by calling the crisis line.

Other resources in your community include:

  • clergy
  • community leader or Elder
  • school or work counselling service
  • hospital emergency department
  • social workers
  • psychologists
  • mental health workers

How many people die by suicide each year?

The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that 1 million people will die by suicide this year—1 death every 40 seconds around the world.

In Alberta, more people die by suicide than motor vehicle accidents every year.

To get 24/7 help in Alberta, please contact:

Mental Health Helpline
Alberta Crisis Centres

Current as of: August 6, 2013

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services