Over the course of our lifetime we each experience feelings of isolation or loneliness and emotional distress. These are just a part of life, aren’t they? We make do or find ways to cope until the situation gets better or goes away. Unfortunately, for some the duration and intensity of painful feelings or disorienting thoughts do not just go away. Instead, they interfere with everyday life. Their usual coping skills are overwhelmed and restoring a balance is difficult.
Mental illness will affect every one of us. For about a fifth, they will personally experience a mental illness during their lifetime. The balance will be affected by an illness in family members or someone close to them. There is no bias to mental illness: it affects people of all ages, educational and income levels and cultures.
Mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour (or some combination) associated with significant distress and impaired functioning. The symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on the type of illness, the individual and their environment.
As complex as mental illnesses are, they can be loosely categorized into five main types.
Mood disorders include major depression, bipolar disorder (combining episodes of both mania and depression) and dysthymia (essentially a chronically depressed mood). About eight percent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
Schizophrenia affects about one percent of Canadians. It is a brain disease characterized by symptoms like mixed-up thoughts, delusions, hallucinations and bizarre behaviour. Like many mental illnesses, its onset is usually in early adulthood.
Everyone feels anxious in certain situations, but people with anxiety disorders develop excessive and unrealistic feelings that interfere in their lives. They will either avoid situations causing them anxiety or will develop compulsive rituals that lessen the anxiety. Anxiety disorders affect 12% of the population, causing mild to severe impairment.
Personality disorders include characteristics like difficulty getting along with others, irritability, being demanding, hostile or fearful. People will have patterns of behaviour deviate markedly from society’s expectations and remain consistent over time.
Eating disorders are another category of mental illness, one which will affect three percent of girls or women in their lifetimes. Eating disorders involve a serious disturbance in eating behaviour: either eating too much or too little. In addition, it normally leads to great concern over body size and shape. Eating disorders carry with them a high risk of other mental and physical illnesses that can lead to death.
The best thing we can do is to be aware of the prevalence of mental illness and to at least understand the basic nature of it. The stigma attached to mental illnesses presents a serious barrier not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community. We should always remember that mental illness is just that, an illness. And it is an illness that can be treated effectively.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.