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This is the second in a seven week series examining the topic of child and youth mental health in B.C. As this is a complex and multifaceted topic, I will be narrowing my focus to a few popular beliefs and areas of concern that I have witnessed in my role as MLA. The purpose of this series is to debunk these beliefs, increase awareness of these concerns, end the stigma of mental health in our society and provide opportunities for you to impact what is happening in your community.

“Health is not simply the absence of disease; it is something positive…” – Harry Sigerist, Medicine and Human Welfare

Popular Belief Three: Mental Illness is the Issue

Reality: If you pay close attention to many conversations about ‘mental health’ you will probably notice that surprisingly the focus is not actually on health.  Most often when we refer to mental health we are really meaning mental illness.

This type of discourse in which mental health and mental illness are used interchangeably not only pairs negative connotations with the concept of mental health, but also brings people to believe that the issue is simply about treating mental illness. When in fact the larger, more encompassing issue is mental health and well-being.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Moreover, WHO defines Mental Health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Each of these definitions stress the positive dimensions of health and mental health. Just as health is not merely the absence of disease, mental health is not merely the lack of a mental disorder – it is the presence of mental well-being.

Yet the Mental Health System as currently structured puts primary emphasis on treating and managing medically diagnosed mental disorders. The majority of resources are channelled into reactive approaches to illness, with little attention given to mental health promotion and/or illness prevention.  

What are the implications of this illness-oriented system for youth mental health?

A survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society found that when asked to define mental health, young people with first-hand experiences of mental health challenges defined it in terms of mental illness rather than in terms of mental wellness.They associated mental health with disorders and negative life experiences or traumatic events.

Interestingly, despite their own negative associations with mental health, some survey participants noted that for people who had not experienced such challenges, mental health would likely refer to one’s well-being. Likewise, when youth who were no longer experiencing acute mental health challenges defined mental health, they did so from this positive framework – describing mental health as a component to a balanced healthy lifestyle.

The fact that so many youth facing mental health challenges pair such negative meaning with the concept of mental health – and have such adverse experiences with mental health supports and services – is a statement of how our mental health system is failing to address the true needs of our young people.

Switching the Focus

Historically, the common approach of our healthcare system has been a focus on the biomedical diagnosis of disease, concerning itself primarily with the illness and not necessarily the individual as a whole. While more holistic models have gained acceptance over the last few decades, the biomedical model continues to be the dominant lens in healthcare today. But this model only addresses part of the problem.

Mental health and mental ill-health are not just biological issues, just as they are not just psychological issues or social issues or environmental issues. Rather, mental health and ill-health are often by-products of interactions between all of these components. Similarly, an individual’s ability to seek support for their mental health challenges is often dependent on the relationships between these same components.

It is precisely this reason that we need to stop approaching mental health and mental ill-health through such a narrow viewpoint. We need to look beyond the labels on the medical chart and stop basing treatment plans merely on medical diagnoses. We need to stop putting sole emphasis on getting rid of an individual’s mental illness and instead focus on how we can provide them with the support and tools they need to live a full and meaningful life. In other words, we need to stop treating the illness and start treating the individual.

By changing the emphasis of our mental health system from one of mental illness to one of mental well-being, and shifting the focus of support services from treating the disease to treating the individual, we can start to shift the way society and those facing these challenges view mental health. While simultaneously fostering feelings of autonomy, meaning and empowerment in the youth facing mental health challenges head-on.  

Weekly Action Item

Armed with a better understanding of mental health and mental health challenges perhaps you might wish to acknowledge your own mental health needs. As the Canadian Mental Health Association points out, “staying mentally healthy is like staying physically fit – it requires a little effort every day.” That’s why this weeks action item is to set aside some time to assess and address your own mental health needs.

This will look different for everybody. Mental health is about striking a balance in all aspects of your life: social, physical, spiritual, economic and mental. Reaching a balance is a learning process and everyone’s personal balance will be unique. Even when a balance has been reached, your challenge will be to stay mentally healthy by keeping that balance.

While some people may be able to reach and maintain this balance on their own, others may require the support of family, friends and/or professionals.  To help you with this process, here is a link to the Canadian Mental Health Association’s website where you will find some suggestions to help you strike and keep your balance.

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