Mental Health Awareness
January is Mental Health Awareness month. We all know someone who has encountered a
mental health issue. Due to the stigma attached to this group of illnesses, individuals are often
hesitant to get help. Awareness starts with knowledge and understanding.
The definition of mental illness is defined as a behavioural or mental pattern that causes
significant distress or impairment of physical functioning. These illnesses encompass anxiety
disorders, eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, psychotic disorders and
substance abuse disorders are the most common but also include others.
Anxiety disorders, including phobias, affect approximately 11% of Canadians (www.canada.ca)
and cause significant feelings of fear and anxiety. Individuals worry about past and future events
and fear current events. People experience physical symptoms such as increased heart and
breathing rate, increased pulse, sweating, shakiness and shortness of breath.
Anxiety disorders can occur with other mental illnesses. The symptoms need to be present for
any least 6 months and include a decrease in normal functioning in order for an accurate
diagnosis to be made. Treatments include medication, lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural
Eating disorders are abnormal eating habits that affect a person’s physical or mental health.
Females and female athletes involved in a judged sport such as dance, gymnastics and figure
skating are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. There are 2 major eating
disorders that many people are aware of – bulimia and anorexia but include others such as pica
and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
Bulimia is the excessive intake of food followed by self-induced vomiting. Anorexia is the intake of
very little food due to a fear of gaining weight. Pica is the consumption of non-food items such as
ice, paint chips and soil. Pica can be associated with mineral deficiencies. Avoidant/Restrictive
Food Intake Disorder is less known and an eating disorder where individuals have a lack of
interest or avoidance of food. This could be related to a past negative experience or based on
food characteristics such as texture, smell, taste etc.
Mood disorders may be the most common and are characterized by disturbances in a person’s
mood. They fall into 2 major categories- elevated mood and depressive mood.
An excessively elevated mood is classified as mania and includes abnormal elevated affect and
energy level, increased rate of speech and ideas, decreased need for sleep and hyperactivity. It
often occurs with bipolar disorder (which individuals alternate between elevated mood and
depressive periods) although it may occur in conjunction with other mental disorders.
Depression is diagnosed when an individual experiences at least 2 weeks of low mood
accompanied by low self-esteem, excessive sleep or sleep disturbances loss of interest in
previously enjoyed activities decreased appetite. Common treatments are counselling and
medications although further investigation may be needed to rule out other diagnoses such as
Personality disorders are a set of maladaptive patterns of behaviours, cognition and early
experiences that deviate from what is accepted as society’s socially normal. These patterns develop
early in life and are often accompanied by distress and/or disability as well as difficulty with
interpersonal relationships, cognitive function and emotional regulation.
Psychotic disorders are abnormal functioning of the brain causing the individual to have
difficulty determining what is real and what is not. Some people experience hallucinations and
hear voices, others may have inappropriate behaviours for the situations and still, others may
have problems with delusions.
There are many different causes including (but not limited to) sleep deprivation, schizophrenia,
bipolar disorder, medications as well as consuming alcohol and drugs. Treatment includes
prescription medications, counselling and social support and early treatment can improve the
Substance Abuse Disorders
Substance Abuse Disorders is defined as when consumption of one or more substances
(examples include alcohol, drugs – illegal and prescription, tobacco, food, etc) is at the root of
problems in an individual's life by causing a loss of control, problems in interpersonal
relationships, and withdrawal symptoms. Abuse can be classified as mild, moderate and severe
and affect approximately 5.5% of the population worldwide (wikipedia.org)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is depression that is related to seasonal changes. It often
starts in the fall when the weather is starting to cool, and we are confined indoors more often.
SAD tends to end in the spring when the weather starts to warm, and we can get outdoors more.
Since we, as Canadians, live far from the equator and experience decreased sunlight hours in the
winter, we are all at risk for SAD. Symptoms are like depression with sadness being the number
one symptom SAD sufferers experience along with a loss of interest in things they normally
enjoy, insomnia (which can exacerbate the depression aspect), low energy, experience changes in
diet, weight fluctuations and possibly thoughts of suicide. Treatments can include using a special
lightbox (called phototherapy), along with talk therapy, exercise, medication, meditation and
getting outdoors, even when it is cold outside.
If you experience any of these symptoms make an appointment with your doctor to discuss a
treatment plan. There are many different approaches aside from medication that can be looked at
and assessed to see which the best treatment plan is for you or your loved one. If you need help
or know someone who does, please phone Alberta’s Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642.