What is mental health? What is mental illness?

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

World Health Organization, 1948

Mental health and mental well-being is about a person’s ability to realize their own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and contribute to their community. Mental health is connected to physical health in the way that a physical injury can lead to poor mental health.

Mental illness has been defined by a scientific consensus that changes over time. Broadly, mental illness is about patterns of thinking, feeling or acting that is sustained over a period of time and may interfere with daily functioning. Causes of mental illness may be primarily biological, psychological, social, or a combination.

Signs of a possible mental health issue

In some situations, a member will disclose that they are living with a mental illness, or are experiencing a mental health issue.

In other situations, members don’t disclose a mental health issue, either because they are not aware of it themselves, or because they fear what will happen if they disclose. They worry that people will treat them differently or that they will be fired.

Noticing signs is a key first step in determining your approach to a situation. If you notice signs of possible mental health issues, avoid making a diagnosis. Only a doctor can do that.

What we can watch out for are the following signs:

  • Change in eating/sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal/isolation
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Change in personal appearance
  • Change in energy/sociability/physical health/behaviour
  • Loss of focus/productivity
  • Frequent absences
  • Errors or accidents on the job
  • Talking about strange ideas

Any of the signs and symptoms of one mental illness could also be an indication of another, or of some other circumstances that are constraining the mental health of a person. Avoid passing judgement or making assumptions about someone’s behaviour. This can unintentionally cause serious damage.

Many people living with mental illnesses face multiple intersecting layers of discrimination because of their mental illness and their identity – particularly when people experience racism, poverty and economic insecurity, gender oppresion, and are from the gender and sexually diverse community.

Categories of common mental illnesses​

  • Schizophrenia (e.g. psychosis)
  • Mood disorders (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Panic disorders (e.g. phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Impulse control and addictions
  • Personality disorders 

Source: CUPE National