Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Navigate Up

Secondary Education

Definitions: Mental Health vs. Mental Health Problems, Mental Wellness vs. Mental Illness

"Mental health involves finding balance in all aspects of your life: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is the ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges you face everyday - whether that involves making choices and decisions, adapting to and coping in difficult situations, or talking about your needs and desires." (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) (2003), Challenges and Choices, pp 11, Toronto, Ontario.)

A person feels mentally healthy when it feels like everything is working well. You feel good about yourself, your relationships with other people, and are able to meet the demands and challenges of everyday life.

Throughout a person's lifetime, mental health is the springboard of thinking and communication skills, learning, emotional growth, resilience, and self esteem.

We may take our mental health for granted and may not notice the components of our mental well-being until we experience problems and stresses in our life. Mental health problems refer to changes in a person's ability to cope and function. These changes may occur at any age for men or women and at any time in a person's life.

"Just as your life and circumstances continually change, so do your moods and thoughts and your sense of well-being. It is important to find balance in your life over time and in a range of situations. It is natural to feel off balance at times: for example, sad, worried, scared or suspicious. But these kinds of feelings may become a problem if they get in the way of your daily life over a long period." (CAMH, Challenges and Choices, pp 11)

Mental health problems generally refer to those changes that occur over a period of time or that significantly affect the way a person copes or functions. When these changes in thinking, mood, and behaviour are associated with significant distress and impaired functioning, it may be that the person is experiencing a mental illness.

Mental illness is the term used to refer to mental health problems that are diagnosed and treated by mental health professionals. In the medical professions, they are also called "mental disorders" but this is not a term that is very comfortable to most people. This would include such problems as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, social phobia, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

It is important to recognize that mental wellness and mental health problems or mental illness are part of an ever changing and dynamic continuum. The following diagram illustrates one model describing the relationship between health and illness:

(wellness arrow diagram)

Illness/Wellness Continuum Model

In the 1970s, Travis developed the Illness/Wellness Continuum Model that attempts to describe the relationship between health and illness.

It is also helpful to think of the balance in our lives and in our mental health as a triangle with equal sides. The sides of the triangle represent our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They are all connected in this triangle; balance or change in one side of the triangle affects the rest of the triangle, e.g., changes in our thinking can affect changes in our behaviour or feelings.

Mind - Body Relationship

We tend to think of physical health and mental health as very separate from one another. In fact we need to understand that the brain carries out mental functions such as thinking, concentration, and feelings as well as physical functions such as movement, touch, and balance. Scientific studies suggest that many serious mental illnesses involve changes in the chemistry of the brain.

Many mental health problems involve mental as well as physical symptoms. For example, when someone is very anxious and experiences what is known as an anxiety attack, they experience mental symptoms such as anxious or fearful thoughts as well as physical symptoms such as racing heart, sweaty palms, difficulty breathing. Similarly, when someone is experiencing depression, they may experience the emotions of sadness, tearfulness, and despair but they are likely also to experience the physical symptoms affecting their sleep patterns, eating habits, appetite, and energy.


It is estimated that one in five Canadians or close to 6 million people are likely to experience a diagnosable mental illness during some period in their lives (from Health Canada; Canadian Psychiatric Association). Mental illness is the second leading cause of hospital use (from Canadian Psychiatric Association).

It is important to understand that most mental health problems begin in adolescence and early adulthood. Because this is a time when most young people are involved in academics, occupational pursuits, and the development of personal relationships, it is easy to understand how mental health problems can affect many areas of a young person's growth and development.

Stigma and Mental Health

Stigma refers to the negative qualities and perceptions that are attributed to people with mental health problems. Stigma is often associated with discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes. People often avoid or delay medical care and treatment for their mental health problems because of stigma and the fear others will see them as "weak" or "different".

"The negative reaction to mental illness leads to discrimination that can be as hard for people to deal with as the symptoms of the disorder itself. For people with mental illness, stigma can be a barrier to finding a place to live, finding a job, finding friends, building a long-term relationship and connecting to the broader community - things that everyone needs for mental health." (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) (2001), Talking About Mental Illness (TAMI), Teacher's Resource, pp 7)

What Causes Mental Illness or Mental Health Problems?

We do not know for sure what causes mental illness but most studies suggest that a combination of factors contribute to the onset, recovery, and severity of most mental health problems. These include:

Genetic Factors

Some mental health problems may occur more often in families where there is a history of mental illness.

Biological Factors

Age and gender are believed to affect the rates and prevalence of mental illness especially when combined with other environmental factors.

Environmental/ ExperimentalFactors

Stresses due to finances, relationships, family background, access to health care and social supports are all believed to affect mental health.

Physical Factors

Symptoms of mental illness can be found to occur in people with a physical illness. For example, people who experience a chronic physical illness may also experience depression. In turn, a person’s experience of a physical illness may be affected by their mental health.

Promoting Positive Mental Health

While the factors listed above may contribute to a person's experience of mental health and mental illness, we also understand that there are other factors that contribute to mental health. Risk factors are those factors that are present before the onset of an illness and that increase the risk of developing a physical or mental illness. Protective factors decrease the risk of developing an illness by moderating the effects of the risk factors.

The field of health promotion and prevention has identified many strategies to maximize the mental health and well being of individuals by weakening the impact of the risk factors and strengthening the impact of the protective factors.

Exercises in this learning unit attempt to develop the coping skills and strategies that enhance and promote positive mental health. Although a person's susceptibility to mental health problems may be related to Environmental or Genetic factors beyond one's control, certain behaviours or coping strategies may make one less susceptible or may lead to better outcomes if faced with the experience of a mental health problem. Knowledge, awareness, and understanding of mental health also contribute positively to outcomes in that individuals are more likely to seek necessary support and treatment.

CAMH Switchboard 416-535-8501
CAMH General Information Toronto: 416-595-6111 Toll Free: 1-800-463-6273
Connex Ontario Help Lines
Queen St.
1001 Queen St. W
Toronto, ON
M6J 1H4
Russell St.
33 Russell St.
Toronto, ON
M5S 2S1
College St.
250 College St.
Toronto, ON
M5T 1R8
Ten offices across Ontario