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What is mental illness?

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that can affect how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

One in five Canadians will have a mental illness at some point in their life. That means that almost all Canadians will have a family member, friend or colleague who has a mental illness.

People of any age, culture, background or lifestyle can develop a mental illness.

Like many other types of illnesses, mental illnesses often have complex causes. These can include a combination of inherited factors, biology (for example, brain chemistry), socio-cultural factors (for example being oppressed or discriminated against), stress, environment, life events and trauma.

There are many different types of mental illnesses, including:

Some of the most common mental health conditions that affect women are depression, postpartum depression, anxiety and disorders associated with traumatic experiences (e.g. experiencing abuse or an assault).

Some people may think that mental illnesses “are all in the head,” or they aren’t real. When, in fact, they are very real and very treatable. In general, people in our society struggle to acknowledge mental health difficulties and would rather not talk about depression, anxiety or trauma. Instead, we want others around us to be healthy and to be healthy ourselves. The trouble with this thinking is, first of all, it denies that people are struggling with mental health difficulties and mental illnesses. And, secondly, this thinking reinforces the shame around these difficulties. Thus, people who are struggling are left alone, often feeling ashamed or damaged. Mental health requires attending to mental illness. In fact, coping with and addressing one’s mental illness and mental health difficulties is being mentally healthy. 

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  • Women's College Hospital