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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

Anxiety disorders, including phobias, affect approximately 11% of Canadians ( 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 therapy (counselling).

Eating Disorders

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 in 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

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 sleep apnea.

Personality Disorders

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

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 outcome.

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 (

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.


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