Most of the following FAQs have been adapted from the Canadian Mental Health Association’s website, and are being used with their permission. For more information, please visit the website.
Mental health means striking a balance in all aspects of one’s life: social, physical, spiritual, economic and mental. At times, the balance may be tipped too much in one direction and one’s footing has to found again. Everyone’s personal balance is unique and the challenge is to stay mentally healthy by keeping the right balance.
Mental health is as important as physical health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has always considered mental well-being as an integral part of the general definition of health. WHO defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’
Major events in our lives can bring on stress: events like new jobs, getting married or divorced, or becoming a parent. Ongoing worries about finances or your children's future can cause stress. So can day-to-day irritations, like the car not starting or being late for work.
Not all events that provoke stress have to be negative. We can either welcome them as challenges enriching our lives, or we can view them as ‘stressful,’ taking away from our enjoyment of life. How we approach these events greatly affects our physical, mental and social well-being.
You can enhance your life by taking stress under control. Using some or all of these approaches should help you to deal better with stress in your life:
- Practice 'mindfulness'. Click here for a Mindfulness Training resource from the National Self-Represented Litigants Project.
- Balance your work and leisure time. Arrange your life so that you are not feeling guilty when you rest, and not ‘goofing off’ when you should be working.
- Set aside some time for laughter.
- Learn to delegate tasks to other people. You don’t have to do it all yourself.
- Learn to use relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation. Expand your spiritual life.
- Get plenty of exercise. If you have to, combine it with physical tasks that need to be done (gardening, house cleaning).
- Learn how to manage your time. Set up priority lists.
- Eat healthy. Some things you put in your body like alcohol, caffeine, and fats make it harder to deal well with stress. Other foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains make it easier.
- Get the amount of rest and sleep your body needs.
- Discuss your problems openly with friends, adult relatives, or counsellors.
- Get away once in a while. Take a complete break. Have some fun!
- Know you don’t need to ‘win’ every argument. Let up on being competitive.
- Don’t try to be perfect, and don’t expect others to be either.
Heart disease and stress
Researchers are still studying the link between stress and heart disease. But so far we do know that people under stress will sometimes have higher blood pressure and cholesterol, and a higher chance of blood clots. Someone under stress is also likely to smoke more, over eat or skip physical activity.
We can’t avoid stress, and it seems today’s lifestyles are even more stressful than ever. So it’s important to learn to cope with it so it affects our bodies as little as possible.
For details on how to get healthy amounts of physical activity, visit the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website.
For more information on coping with stress, click here.
All of us feel angry, at least occasionally. Most of the time when we get angry, we get over it quickly because, somehow, we resolve the situation and our feelings of anger pass. Anger becomes a problem, however, if we ‘bottle it up’ or if we 'blow up.’ Both of these extremes cause problems for the angry people and for those around them.
Feelings of anger are a normal reaction to some situations beyond your control. They can also indicate that you are simply under too much stress, and it can be hard to know if you should just let your anger pass or work at getting rid of it.
It is time to admit that anger is a problem and to look for ways of dealing with it if your anger is:
- constantly on your mind for several weeks and is beginning to seriously harm your enjoyment of life
- caused by something that happened a long time ago
- causing you to do vengeful things
- making you act violently to others or to yourself
- interfering with your ability to do your job
- hurting your relationships with your family and friends.
It is important to deal with your anger before it causes you discomfort or pain. Studies have shown that anger can cause serious health problems such as ulcers and heart disease. It can also make you behave in ways that could cause you to lose your job or friends, or result in the break-up of your marriage. There are some things you can do to deal with your anger as it happens. Other things you can do involve changing your way of approaching life by learning new attitudes and taking a number of practical actions.
- Admit that you are angry. If you bottle up your angry feelings, they will not go away, and they will keep coming out over and over again, painfully.
- Try not to over-react. Step back from the situation that is making you angry and ask yourself, ‘What would I think of someone else if I saw him/her getting angry in this situation?’ or ‘Is this situation really as bad as I am making it out to be?’
- Try to make yourself think about something else. Turn your attention to some pleasant memory rather than the line-up, traffic jam or whatever is irritating you.
- Identify the source of your anger. If the actions or words of another person are hurting you, try to deal with him/her directly in a peaceful and productive way.
- Listen carefully to what others are saying to you, and let them finish without interruption. Very often, you will not understand the real message if you ‘jump in’ after a few words. Give people a chance to explain themselves.
- If your anger is caused by something beyond your control, such as a job lay-off, find out how others have dealt with the problem successfully, and try to follow their lead.
- Avoid blaming yourself, even if you are angry because of misfortune caused by your own mistake. It is best to try to learn from your experiences and avoid making the same mistakes again.
- Reduce tension by finding time for some physical activity. Go for a brisk walk, play a hard game of tennis with a friend, work in the garden, or clean the house.
- Reduce your stress level. Learn some stress management methods, such as relaxation and deep-breathing exercises. Try to find ways of doing more of the things you enjoy.
- Learn to meditate. When you are alone, practice withdrawing your thoughts from your day-to-day concerns. This may make you more able to do the same when you find yourself getting angry.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. If you can learn to see the silly side of things, you can laugh instead of lashing out.
- Learn to trust the abilities of others. Some of your anger may be coming from a lack of faith in the capabilities of other people.
- Look for professional help. If your problems are serious, you may need the help of a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. Your family doctor can help you find these professional people.
- Talk to someone you trust (a family member, a close friend, or a member of the clergy for your religion) who may be able to see things more clearly than you do.
Some relationships end suddenly while others seem to fall apart over a long period of time. No matter what the cause, if your relationship fails, you are likely to feel a whole range of intense emotions: sadness, anger, hurt, fear of an uncertain future, loneliness, confusion over the many decisions you must make, and a sense of failure at your lost plans and dreams.
How you choose to handle a separation is very important because of the effect it will have on the rest of your life. If you do not deal with the pain, and if you allow yourself to become bitter, you will be unhappy for a very long time. Let go of your bitterness and anger. Try to look at the separation as an opportunity to re-examine your abilities, your assets and your dreams, and to make the changes necessary for a new, full and rewarding life.
Things you can do
Most people who have gone through separation and divorce have felt the same way you do now, and most have ended up stronger than before. However, while you are going through the experience, you will need coping skills and emotional support. Here are some things you can do:
- Talk to someone you trust. Talking to a family member or close friend can give you an outlet for your frustration and anger. Be careful not to burden your children with these feelings. Be sure you can trust the person to keep your secrets so that you can feel free to share your deepest concerns. You may find that a person who has been through a separation or divorce is the best one to offer support.
- Keep a familiar routine for yourself and your children. It is very important to have a sense of stability at a time of such major and painful change. This is especially important for your children: the more their world stays the same, the better they will be able to cope with the changes they will have to make.
- Keep the lines of communication open with your children. They need to know that they are not losing the love and support of either parent, and that they are not responsible for your separation or divorce. Talk openly to them about your new living arrangements. The Parent Information Program has information about communication and tips on how to keep kids from getting 'stuck in the middle.'
- Stay healthy. You may find yourself forgetting to eat regularly and staying up late worrying. This could lead to a loss of energy and illness at a time when you most need to be on top of things. Keep yourself in good health by eating regular meals and getting enough sleep. You should also try to get regular exercise.
- Learn some methods for coping with stress. There are many good books you can read on coping with stress, and you may also find some information on relaxation techniques helpful. Check with your local library and bookstore.
- Keep in mind the old saying ‘One day at a time.’ Deal with your separation and the unexpected problems and feelings it creates by asking yourself ‘What do I need to do today?’ Try not to worry about things you cannot do anything about until next week or next month. When the time comes, deal with them just like the others - one day at a time.
- Avoid making major decisions until your life has become more settled. Some decisions have to be made quickly, such as housing and school arrangements for the children, and, if you have not been working, getting a job. However, you can put off many decisions until ‘the dust has settled.’ It may be best to give yourself some time before deciding on a career change, moving to another community, going back to school or getting involved with someone new.
- Allow yourself the time you need to heal. Your family and friends may encourage you to ‘cheer up’ and ‘get on with life’ before you are ready. Generally, this happens because people who care about you feel distressed at seeing you unhappy. Although their concern is understandable, you must take whatever time you need to heal. Losing a marriage or intimate relationship, no matter how difficult it may have been, still causes wounds, and you will need time to grieve. Give yourself quiet times alone in which you can think, cry, or simply be by yourself.
- Get professional help when you need it. You will face many legal and emotional issues along with separation and divorce, and you will probably need professional help. For legal matters, seek the help of a lawyer. If you are experiencing severe emotional stress, your family doctor can help you find a counsellor. You may also find it helpful to talk to a member of the clergy for your religion. Make sure you use these services when you need them - ignore the desire to ‘tough it out’ on your own.
- Look for support in your community. There may be workshops and self-help groups in your community which can help you in this difficult time.
Mental illness is the term used to refer to a variety of mental disorders that can be diagnosed. Mental disorders are health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination of these) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.
Factors affecting mental illness rates
A number of factors affect how many people will have a mental illness. One of these is the support of family and friends. For example, people who are divorced or separated are more likely to go through a depression than those who are married. Another factor is gender. Twice as many females report depression as males.
There is also a link between physical and mental health. It is reported that 25% of people with serious physical health conditions will develop a major depressive disorder along with their condition. These other health conditions include diabetes, heart attack, cancer and stroke.
The most common serious mental illnesses are schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder (manic depression). In general, the major mental illnesses tend to be ‘episodic.’ This means the symptoms come and go, leaving periods in between when people can lead fairly normal lives.
People with schizophrenia can have:
- confused thoughts,
- hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others don't),
- extreme anxiety,
- delusions (irrational beliefs),
- depression, and
- lack of motivation.
Schizophrenia is rarely a constant state. People often go through periods of illness, followed by periods of remission.
What happens over the long term is mixed as well. Ten years after schizophrenia is diagnosed, most people probably will improve to some extent. Some of these people will need some support, while others will be living independently.
About 50% of individuals greatly improve in their functioning and quality of life. Statistics show 25% of individuals diagnosed will recover completely, with another 25% achieving great improvement and living independently. Another 25% are improved but still require ongoing support, while 15% may be hospitalized for extended periods. Tragically, 10% of individuals die after 10 years of living with schizophrenia, most often as the result of suicide.
Depression and bipolar disorder
Depression and bipolar disorder (what used to be called ‘manic depression’) are also called mood disorders or affective disorders. Depression is the more common of the two.
People with depression may:
- suffer from anxiety
- feel helpless and hopeless
- lose interest in activities they used to enjoy
- feel guilty
- think of suicide.
Physically, they may gain or lose a lot of weight, and their appetites may change. Their sleeping patterns may be different, and they may have less energy as well.
People with bipolar disorder go through mood swings between depression and mania. The most obvious sign of mania is an outgoing ‘feeling up’ kind of mood.
People in manic phases appear sociable, talkative, very energetic and full of self-confidence.
On the other hand, they may also become:
- very irritable,
- overly self-important, or
- reckless. For example, they may go on spending sprees, even to the point of financial ruin or trouble with the law.
Other common mental illnesses fall into the category of anxiety disorders. These include:
- phobias (unreasonable fears)
- panic disorders (intense episodes of sudden fear)
- obsessive compulsive disorder (unwanted thoughts or actions that keep repeating).
Mental illness has no single cause. In the past, people often blamed parents unfairly if a child in the family developed a mental illness. However, it is most likely several factors together that lead to mental illness. For example, recent evidence has shown that many of the major mental illnesses involve chemical imbalances in the body.
Mental illnesses are:
- biological, linked with disturbances in the brain or other body-system chemistry,
- psychological, linked with disturbances in thought or emotion, and
- social, linked with life events and stresses.
Mental health professionals account for all three areas of a person’s life when they design a plan for dealing with the illness.
Biological factors that may affect whether someone becomes seriously mentally ill include:
- pre-natal damage
- birth trauma
- viral infection
- faulty brain chemistry
Genetics may play a part, too. Studies show that close relatives of someone with schizophrenia or an affective disorder are much more likely to have the same illness. However, people don’t inherit the illness itself. They just inherit the tendency to get it.
Psychological and social factors could include:
- lack of support from relationships
- child abuse
- family violence
- major changes in life
Dealing with mental illness
Just as there are different causes, there are also many different ways to deal with mental illness.
Professional methods usually include medication or psychotherapy (or both at the same time). One approach that is becoming more popular is cognitive behavioural therapy. In this type of therapy, the therapist helps the person to view their situation in a more positive light. There are also community support services to help people manage their lives. The areas these services can help with include:
Non-professional methods are just as important. For example, the support of family and friends is critical for someone coping with mental illness. Another valuable resource is a self-help group. In these groups, people in similar situations can share advice, help, and support.
Many people find that a combination of strategies is what helps most. This can include:
- talk therapy, and
- alternative approaches (like a balanced diet, exercise, yoga and meditation).
It can be very stressful to have a family member with a mental illness. A common response is to try to deal with the problem alone. People may isolate themselves so they can avoid the stigma that may come about when friends and neighbours find out about ‘our secret’.
However, keeping the problem in the family is not the best approach. The best way to deal with mental illness in the family is to link up with other families who are in a similar situation. In Canada, the two best known family organizations are the Mood Disorders Society and the Schizophrenia Society. They can connect you to other families in your area, and give you information about the illness.
Care for each other, and for yourself
Within the family itself it is best to talk openly about concerns. You will want to be supportive of your family member, but remember that this is not your fault, and you cannot make it go away. Try to stay positive, and approach problems directly.
Make sure everyone in the family knows they are loved and included in discussions about the situation. If the family member who has mental health problems is an adult, it helps to treat them like an adult rather than a helpless child.
Families carry huge burdens, with little support for the role they play. Although your family member is the one with the illness, it is all right to admit that you may need help too. For example, you may need help with housework or child care, or you may just need someone to talk to. Give your friends concrete suggestions of how they can help you. For example, they can spend an evening out with you, or help with a home-cooked meal.
You can also join a self-help group of other families. These groups help you get peace of mind by giving you:
- emotional support
- practical help
There is no easy way to answer this question. It will all depend on whether the mental health issue affects your ability to parent, and what parenting plan is in the best interests of your children. Much will depend on whether you are receiving treatment and/or following a treatment plan. If you are not healthy, then this can impact on your ability to parent. If you are healthy, then the fact that you have a mental health issue may have no, or very little, bearing on the outcome of your case.
Having good legal advice and representation is very important in these situations. Among other things, a lawyer can assist in obtaining medical reports to confirm your mental health status as it relates to parenting issues.
Other tools, like psychological assessments, may be important as well in these situations. Click here for more information on assessments.
In some cases, supervised access may be required to ensure that children are safe. Click here for more information on supervised access and exchange. Again, it will depend on your health and the wellbeing of your children.
You can contact Nova Scotia 211 by dialing 211 from your phone, or by visiting their website. You can also visit our mental health and addictions services listing here.