Before you can fight stigma you need to arm yourself with information about many of the common mental illnesses that adults and children are diagnosed with. This is not an exhaustive list, but a start in understanding many conditions that were once viewed with awe or bewilderment.

(Sources: Canadian Mental Health Association, Kids Mental Health, Teen Mental Health)

Mood Disorders:

Depression. Everyone feels down or unhappy at different points in their life – maybe after a break-up, or after losing their job. This is completely normal and a part of everyday life. You might feel sad, disappointed and empty, but usually these feelings pass after a short time. Depression becomes an illness (clinical depression), when the feelings described above are severe, last for several weeks, and begin to interfere with work, school or your social life. Depression can change the way a person thinks and behaves, and how his/her body functions. Some of the signs to look for are:

  • feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless
  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • eating more or less than usual
  • becoming angry, disagreeable or argumentative
  • skipping classes or school
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • loss of interest in activities
  • avoiding people
  • overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief
  • feeling unreasonably guilty
  • loss of energy, feeling very tired
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Depression affects over 3 million Canadians, specifically 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10.

Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, is a cycle of depressed mood (described above), “normal” mood, and mania. People can cycle between these moods very quickly (daily) or very slowly (yearly).

Mania is an elevated or irritable mood, with symptoms like:

  • inflated self-esteem or self-importance
  • less need for sleep
  • increased energy and mood
  • racing speech and thoughts
  • excessive irritability, aggressive behavior and impatience
  • poor judgment
  • reckless behavior, like excessive spending, making rash decisions and erratic driving
  • difficulty concentrating

Kids and teens with bipolar disorder don’t always act the same as adults with bipolar disorder do. Some kids may have very fast mood changes and may have some of the other mood-related symptoms listed above, like irritability and high levels of anxiety. But they may not show other symptoms that are more commonly seen in adults.

Bipolar disorder affects approximately 1% of the population; it typically starts in late adolescence or early adulthood and affects men and women equally.

Anxiety Disorders:

Anxiety disorders are a group of disorders that affect behaviour, thoughts, emotions and physical health. It is common for people to suffer from more than one anxiety disorder, and for an anxiety disorder to be accompanied by depression, eating disorders or substance abuse.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. GAD is characterized by extreme worry about routine life events; it lasts at least six months, during which time the individual is extremely worried more days than not. The worry and anxiety cause emotional distress, difficulty with enjoying life, problems with relationships and school (or work) and may lead to many physical symptoms for which there is no other explanation (such as headaches, lump in your throat, sighing, aches and pains, nausea, etc.).

Panic Disorder. Panic disorder is expressed in panic attacks that occur without warning, accompanied by sudden feelings of terror. Often, this unpredictably makes the individual very anxious that an attack could happen at any time. Physically, an attack may cause chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, feelings of unreality and fear of dying.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This is a condition in which an individual suffers from persistent unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that are impossible to control and cause great anxiety. He/she can’t stop thinking harmful, dangerous, wrong, or dirty thoughts. He/she will then engage in behaviours (compulsions) to temporarily rid him/herself of the anxiety. Typically, obsessions concern contamination, doubting (such as worrying that the iron hasn’t been turned off) and disturbing sexual or religious thoughts. Compulsions include washing, checking, organizing and counting.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD involves re-experiencing a terrifying event over and over again, including the anxiety that goes along with it. Survivors of rape, child abuse, war or a car accident may develop PTSD. Common symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, depression and feelings of anger or irritability.

Social Phobia. People with social phobia feel a paralyzing, irrational self-consciousness about social situations. As a result, the individual feels uncomfortable participating in everyday social situations, particularly, because he/she is afraid of being observed or of doing something horribly wrong in front of other people.

Specific Phobias. Just as the name implies, this disorder involves a fear of a specific object or situation. People suffering from a specific phobia are overwhelmed by unreasonable fears that they are unable to control. Exposure to feared situations can cause them extreme anxiety and panic, even if the individual recognizes that their fears are illogical. Fear of flying, fear of heights and fear of open spaces are some typical specific phobias.

Eating Disorders

Despite their label, these disorders are not all about eating or food. Eating disorders are a way of coping with deeper problems that a person finds too painful or difficult to deal with directly. They are complex conditions that signal difficulties with identity, self-concept and self-esteem. Eating disorders cross cultural, racial and socio-economic boundaries, and affect men and women.

Eating disorders can be difficult to detect. The media glamorization of so-called ideal bodies, coupled with the view that dieting is a normal activity, can obscure a person’s eating problems. It can be difficult for a person with an eating disorder to admit they have a problem.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe weight loss due to extreme food reduction. Symptoms include:

  • refusal to keep body weight at or above the normal weight for one’s body type
  • dieting to extremes, usually coupled with excessive exercise
  • feeling overweight despite dramatic weight loss

Bulimia nervosa results in frequent fluctuations in weight, due to periods of uncontrollable binge eating, followed by purging, symptoms include:

  • repeated episodes of bingeing and purging, usually by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics – methods which are both ineffective and harmful
  • eating beyond the point of fullness, often in secret

Binge-eating disorder, or compulsive eating, involves periods of overeating, often in secret and often carried out as a means of deriving comfort. Symptoms include:

  • periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating
  • sporadic fasts or repetitive diets

Warning signs of Eating Disorder

Eating disorders can be difficult to detect. Someone suffering from bulimia can have a normal weight, but the activities they are engaging in can be deadly. Here are some warning signs of eating disorders:

  • low self-esteem
  • social withdrawal
  • claims of feeling fat when weight is normal or low
  • preoccupied with food, weight, counting calories and with what people think
  • exercises excessively
  • denies that there is a problem
  • wants to be perfect
  • intolerant of others
  • unable to concentrate
  • withdraws from social activities, especially meals and celebrations involving food


At first glance, schizophrenia may seem like a great puzzle. Its causes are still uncertain; its symptoms, variable. It strikes most often in the 16 to 30 year age group and affects an estimated one person in a hundred.

Schizophrenia is a brain disturbance involving hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech and/or behaviour. It often starts slowly. When the symptoms first appear, usually in adolescence or early adulthood, they may seem more bewildering than serious. The symptoms of schizophrenia vary greatly from person to person, from mild to severe. Schizophrenia tends to appear in cycles of remission and relapse.

During relapse, people with schizophrenia may experience one or all of these symptoms:

  • delusions and/or hallucinations
  • lack of motivation
  • social withdrawal
  • thought disorders

Delusions are false beliefs that have no basis in reality. People with schizophrenia may think, for example, that someone is spying on them, listening to their thoughts, or placing thoughts in their minds.

Hallucinations most often consist of hearing voices that comment on behaviour, are insulting or give commands. Less often, people with schizophrenia may see or feel things that aren’t there. Overall, hallucinations can involve all 5 senses.

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