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  • shannonmtabor

What is Mental Illness, and When Should I Seek Support?

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Mental health and illness are not all-or-nothing. We can all struggle with the way we feel, think, and behave. It’s normal to have times where we feel down or overwhelmed, struggle with negative thoughts, or act in ways that don’t align with our goals and values. People can experience mental health problems without having a mental illness, the same way we can feel physically unwell without having a serious disease or illness (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2015). Likewise, mental illness is not necessarily the complete absence of mental health. Poor mental health becomes an illness when a person’s symptoms cause frequent distress and have an impact on their functioning.

Mental health concerns look different for different people. Symptoms of poor mental health vary from person to person. It can be helpful to check in with yourself and practice noticing if you are experiencing any symptoms that might indicate poor mental health. This can offer insight into areas you can improve! Symptoms can be cognitive (what you think), emotional (how you feel), behavioural (what you do), and physiological (what happens in your body). Some common symptoms include:

  • Cognitive: difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, worrying, pessimism

  • Emotional: anxiety, irritability, moodiness, frustration, loneliness, feeling overwhelmed

  • Behavioural: changes in eating, changes in sleeping, withdrawing, avoidance, substance use

  • Physical: fatigue, headache, muscle ache, stomach problems, nausea

What we think and feel often happens automatically, without our intention or even awareness; it is like our minds are on autopilot. Becoming more aware of our automatic responses by intentionally noticing or tracking our thoughts, emotions, physiological sensations, and behaviours can help us become more mindful, which can help free us from the automatic and unhelpful ways we may think and respond (Frewen et al., 2008).

Mental health concerns are inherently subjective. No one else can feel what you feel or know what you think. When trying to determine if what you are experiencing is a problem, what really matters is if it is a problem for you. There are three questions to consider asking yourself when determining if symptoms of poor mental health have become a problem for you:

  1. How intense are these symptoms/how much do they bother me?

  2. How frequently are these symptoms bothering me (i.e., occasionally, or more persistently)?

  3. To what degree are these symptoms getting in the way of what I want to be doing?

Whether you meet the criteria for diagnosis of a mental illness or not, if your symptoms are intense, frequent, or getting in the way of functioning, you may benefit from addressing your symptoms or seeking treatment.

Mental health can be practiced and improved. Mental health is not the absence of mental illness; it is the presence of well-being. Even people with mental illness can experience benefits of mental health. Cultivating mental health is something we can each do in our lives, the same way we can take care of our physical health. There are several strategies for improving mental health. This list is not exhaustive, but it may be a good place to start!

  • Social Support: building a support network, connecting with others, asking for help

  • Cognitive Strategies: perspective taking, mindfulness, challenging unhelpful thinking

  • Finding Meaning: clarifying values, doing what brings you pleasure and a sense of achievement

  • Life Balance: time management, setting boundaries, self-care

  • Physical Health: exercise, sleeping, healthy eating, relaxation techniques

Mental health can be supported. We can reach out to professionals when things start feeling too hard to handle on our own and when our symptoms start getting in the way of how we want to live our lives. If trying strategies on your own has not worked for you or feels like an insurmountable task, seeking support might be the right option for you.






Frewen, P. A., Evans, E. M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D. J. A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: Mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.

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