Mental health is more than the absence of a mental health condition: it is a positive sense of well-being or the capacity to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.
If you’re trying to learn about mental illness or struggling with your own mental health, figuring out where to start can be overwhelming. It can also be difficult to watch someone you care about experience challenges like these and not know how to help. You can start by exploring below.
Get your bearings.
A mental illness is an illness the affects that way people think, feel, behave, or interact with others. There are many different mental illnesses, and they have different symptoms that impact peoples’ lives in different ways.
When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about our mental well-being: our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us.
(Adapted from More Feet on the Ground)
It might be a good idea to visit the SWC for a consultation appointment if you have been experiencing at least one of the following:
- Feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your life
- Feeling like you are struggling to cope with life’s challenges
- Experiencing distress more frequently or intensely than usual
- Friends suggesting that it might be good to talk to somebody.
You can learn more about what to expect when booking an appointment here.
Pathways to Care
The SWC has a “Consultation Model” in place that ensures students are seen within 1-2 days of coming to the clinic with a mental health concern. Your first appointment will be a 15-20 minute consultation where you describe what you’ve been experiencing and then you and a professional decide together what steps to take next.
McMaster Mental Health Strategy
McMaster has made a commitment to students’ mental health and outlined how these commitments will be implemented. Learn more about the mental health strategy.
The Okanagan Charter, developed on the territory of the Okanagan nation, is an international charter for promoting health on university and college campuses. Eleven Canadian institutions, including McMaster University, have signed the charter so far. Learn more about the charter.
Many mental health resources place an emphasis on illness and surviving rough periods in your life. In contrast, positive psychology focuses on the things in life that make people thrive. It is the study of what makes life most meaningful. Instead of asking “What is wrong with people?”, positive psychology adopts the approach of “What is right with people?” It advocates for exploring people’s strengths without minimizing the impact of pain and suffering.
(Adapted from “Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths” by C.R. Snyder, Shane J. Lopez, and Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti)
An introduction to some of the most common mental health concerns among university students.
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Mood disorders are a group of mental illnesses that affect how you feel and think about yourself, other people and life in general. This group of disorders includes depression, dysthymia (similar to depression; though the symptoms are milder, they last longer), and bipolar disorder, and is characterized by a lower or negative mood for a sustained period of time.
With bipolar disorder, periods of depression are interspersed with periods of mania and normal feelings.
Symptoms of Depression
- I have overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief
- I’ve lost interest in taking part in activities I used to enjoy
- I’ve lost my desire for sex
- I find myself avoiding other people
- I’m sleeping more or less than usual
- I’m eating more or less than usual
- I’m having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- I’m feeling extremely irritable and angry
- I’m feeling guilty all the time
- I often think about death or ending my life
Symptoms of Mania
- I’ve been in an excessively high or elevated mood
- I feel extremely irritable or angry
- I’m optimistic about everything, even when others aren’t
- I’m making quick decisions often without thinking them through
- I’m spending money more quickly or my sexual habits have changed
- My thoughts are racing; I have a lot of plans
- I’m really energetic; I can’t seem to stay still
- I’m talking more quickly than usual and people seem to have a hard time understanding me
- I’m feeling little need for sleep
Though it is normal and helpful and healthy to experience anxious or worried feelings from time to time, excessive worrying or unhelpful anxiety can seriously affect one’s academic, social, professional, and personal lives. Anxiety disorders include phobias, panic disorders, social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder, and agoraphobia.
Though they are no longer classified as “anxiety disorders”, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are related to anxiety disorders since they do involve fear or anxiety in a significant way.
You can learn more about these disorders by clicking one of the links in the sidebar.
An eating disorder is when someone severely restricts their caloric intake due to their all-consuming preoccupation with calories, grams of fat, exercise, and weight. Their weight becomes the prime focus of their life, and limiting their calories in this way gives them a false sense of being in control over the difficult problems in other areas of their life.
Eating disorders are not just about food. They are a coping mechanism that allows people with eating disorders to displace the painful emotions or situations that are the heart of the problem. They are complicated illnesses that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth, and self-esteem.
The signs of an eating disorder often start before a person looks unwell, so weight should never be the only consideration.
The three main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. You can learn more about these conditions by visiting one of the links in the sidebar.
Also known as self-injury, self-harm is deliberately hurting oneself without the intention to end one’s life. This can include cutting or burning skin, hitting oneself to the point of injury, preventing wounds from healing, hair pulling, and inserting objects into one’s body. Usually, these behaviours are a coping mechanism for difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations; they are an attempt to feel better. Some of the reasons people self-harm include:
- To cope with anxiety or depression
- To cope with loss, trauma, violence, or other difficult situations
- To ‘punish’ themselves
- To turn emotional pain into physical pain
- To feel ‘real’ and counter feelings of emptiness or numbness
- To feel euphoria
- To regain control of their bodies
- To simply feel better
Though self-harm isn’t itself a mental illness, it is a sign that someone needs support and can indicate a mental health problem.
People who self-injure often hide the behaviour. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed, and they may avoid talking about it. Warning signs include:
- Unexplained frequent injuries, such as cuts and burns
- Unexplained scars
- Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts all the time, even in warm weather
- Low self-esteem
- Problems handling emotions
- Problems with relationships
Suicide is the act of intentionally taking your own life. People who are suicidal may be considering this option because they feel any of the following:
- Constricted or helpless
- Like they are a burden to others
- That death is the only way to escape the pain and anguish they feel
However, suicidal people don’t always want to end their lives – sometimes, suicide may seem like the only way to deal with difficult feelings and situations. There are several experiences that can lead someone to consider suicide. Known risk factors for suicide include:
- A previous suicide attempt
- Family history of suicidal behaviour
- A serious physical or mental illness
- Problems with drugs or alcohol
- A major loss, such as the death of a loved one, unemployment, or divorce
- Major life changes or transitions, like those experienced by teenagers and seniors
- Social isolation or lack of a support network
- Family violence
- Access to the means of suicide
While we often think of suicide in relation to depression, anxiety, and substance use problems, any mental illness may increase the risk of suicide. It’s also important to remember that suicide may not be related to any mental illness.
Major warning signs of suicide spell ‘IS PATH WARM’:
I—Ideation: thinking about suicide
S—Substance use: problems with drugs or alcohol
P—Purposelessness: feeling like there is no purpose in life or reason for living
A—Anxiety: feeling intense anxiety or feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
T—Trapped: feeling trapped or feeling like there is no way out of a situation
H—Hopelessness or Helplessness: feeling no hope for the future, feeling like things will never get better
W—Withdrawal: avoiding family, friends, or activities
A—Anger: feeling unreasonable anger
R—Recklessness: engaging in risky or harmful activities normally avoided
M—Mood change: a significant change in mood
How do I help manage these experiences?
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Start by approaching a trusted individual, such as a loved one or healthcare professional. It can be useful to have someone else help you figure out next steps to take, such as counselling, resources, and programs to access.
Talking to a professional can help you work through the thoughts, emotions, and situations behind what you’re experiencing and help you in the long-term by teaching you skills to manage problems in the future. Support groups can also be beneficial, as they allow people to share experiences and recovery strategies and connect with people who understand what you’re experiencing.
If you self-harm, it’s important to take care of your injuries. If you’re worried about an injury, talk to your doctor, go to your local emergency room, or call 911. You should be treated with respect no matter how you received the injury.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, it’s important to talk about your experiences with a trusted individual such as a doctor or loved one. Some people find it helpful to schedule frequent appointments with care providers or request phone support. You can find various phone lines on this website under Crisis Support.
If you are in crisis and aren’t sure what to do, you can always call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
Some people find a safety plan useful. A safety plan is a list of personal strategies to use if you think you are at risk of hurting or ending your life. You can create a plan on your own, with a loved one, or with your mental health care team, and can include things such as calming activities, your own reasons for living, and key people to call or places to go if you’re worried about your safety.
Other strategies can help reduce the overall risk. All of these factors are linked to wellbeing. These strategies include seeking treatment and support for mental health concerns, building support networks of loved ones or support groups, and learning good coping skills.
Supporting a loved one with a mental illness can be challenging. Many people feel upset or even frightened by their loved one’s beliefs, behaviours, or state of wellbeing. It can be scary to hear what they have to say, and you may not understand why someone would believe certain things about themselves or exhibit certain behaviours. However, it’s important to use an approach that focuses on support and understanding. Their feelings and experiences are very real.
Before approaching your loved one with your concerns, it is helpful to learn as much as you can about their mental illness. This will allow you to support them in ways that respect their experiences and avoids guilt, shame, or judgement, all of which are important for an open and trusting relationship. Further, it is also helpful to focus more on your concern for their wellbeing than their behaviours.
Here are some tips to help you support a loved one with a mental illness:
- Be mindful of your own attitudes and behaviours around mental health, and specifically the illness that your loved one is experiencing.
- Never force someone to change their habits or trick someone into changing.
- Avoid reacting to a loved one’s self-talk or trying to reason with statements that seem unrealistic to you.
- If your loved one is an adult, remember that supporting help-seeking is a balance between your own concerns and their right to privacy.
- If your loved one’s experiences are affecting other family members, family counselling may be helpful.
- If you’re concerned about self-harm or suicide, ask them about it. It won’t make them more likely to act on those impulses. If someone is seriously considering suicide, they may be relieved that they can talk about it.
- Though your concern is understandable, it is unrealistic to expect someone to immediately stop certain patterns of thinking or behaviours since forming new, healthy habits takes time. It is important to support new behaviours and celebrate with them any small steps forward.
Lastly, supporting a loved one through a difficult experience can be difficult for you, too. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and seek support for yourself.
If someone you love says that they’re thinking about ending their life, it’s important to ask them if they have a plan. If they have a plan and intend to end their life soon, or have attempted suicide and need medical attention, connect with crisis services or supports right away. Many areas have a crisis, distress, or suicide helpline, but you can always call 911 if you don’t know who to call. Stay with your loved one while you make the call, and don’t leave until the crisis line or emergency responders say you can leave.
The two most important things you can do are listen and help them connect with mental health services.
Here are tips for talking with a loved one:
- Find a private place and let your loved one take as much time as they need.
- Take your loved one seriously and listen without judgement—their feelings are very real.
- Keep your word—don’t make promise you can’t keep or don’t intend to keep.
- Tell your loved one that they are important and that you care about them.
If your loved one already sees a doctor or other mental health service provider, it’s important that they tell their service provider about any thoughts of suicide they may have been having. Depending on your relationship, you can offer to help—by helping your loved one schedule appointments or by taking them to their appointments, for example.
If your loved one doesn’t see a mental health service provider, you can give them the phone number for a local crisis line and encourage them to see their doctor. Your loved one may also be able to access services through their school, workplace, cultural or faith community.
Supporting a loved one can be a difficult experience for anyone, so it’s important to take care of your own mental health during this time and seek support if you need it.