What is Mental Illness?


With drenched hair stuck to my face

I stand in the middle of the road

Hands at my side

I feel the rain drip down my body

Forcing me to become wet

I’m waiting for the sun

The clouds have overtaken it

They have taken my light away

My eyes dart to the sky

I wait for the sun

Fear possesses me

Wondering if it will ever come back

The rain gets harder

And the clouds roar

But I stay still

Waiting for the sun

Because no matter the darkness

Light will always follow.

(Adolescent #1 2010)

what is mentall illness


     What does it mean to be mentally ill?  What is mental illness?  There is little doubt that mental illness is a very misunderstood and stigmatized condition.  Would we ever ask the question “What does it mean to be physically ill?”  To ask such a question would be absurd as there are so many different answers.  The same holds true for mental illness.  Essentially there is really no one definition for mental illness.  In fact, to use one such definition really only further perpetuates the stigma we are trying to battle against.

     “Mental illness” can take a multitude of forms, just as physical illness can.  It can be one particular condition such as depression, or it can be multifaceted and combine a variety of afflictions such as depression, anxiety and mood disorders.  One undeniable fact remains clear… the term mental illness is absolutely misunderstood and feared by the population in general and it comes with extreme labeling and stigmatization.  As is the history with humanity, we fear what we do not understand.  It is human nature.  Our ultimate objective then should be to seek to understand, and thus empathize with the unknown, not fear it and try to make it go away by pushing it down into the depths or through ridicule.

Essentially, components of mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour which is associated with significant distress and impaired functioning over an extended period of time.  The symptoms will vary from mild to severe.  The key point to focus upon here is “significant distress” and “impaired functioning.”  When trying to understand and empathize with someone who has a condition, it is vital to comprehend that the intensity of their painful feelings and disorientation may seriously impair their ability to function in everyday life.  According to a Health Canada Report  the following points typify mental illness:

  • Mental illnesses indirectly affect all Canadians through illness in a family member, friend or colleague.
  • Twenty percent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness during their lifetime.
  • Mental illnesses affect people of all ages, educational and income levels and cultures.
  • The onset of most mental illnesses occurs during adolescence and young adulthood.
  • A complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors causes mental illnesses.
  • Mental illness can be treated effectively.
  • Mental illnesses are costly to the individual, the family, the health care system and the community.
  • The stigma attached to mental illness presents a serious barrier no only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community.  (A Report on Mental Illness in Canada.  Health Canada)

It is through this tangled maze that many individuals and families are forced to navigate.  Mental illness will spin its web and those affected will have to bob and weave through it, surviving and hoping for better days.  The nature of society to “hide” and attach negative stigma to those who they perceive as “mentally ill” makes receiving help and enjoying those better days extremely difficult.  However, those better days do come…and by helping to advocate for the mentally ill and educating society about the destructive nature of stigmatization, we can help more people find them all the time!

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