Mental Health Awareness – Overview

What are Mental Illnesses?

Mental illnesses are health challenges that can affect the way we think about ourselves, relate to others, and interact with the world around us. They affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Mental illnesses can disrupt a person’s life or create challenges, but with the right supports, a person can get back on a path to sustainability and wellness. [1]

There are many different types of mental illness that affect people in different ways. Within each mental illness, people may have very different symptoms and challenges. Access to services, support from loved ones, and the ability to participate in communities play a big part in the way people experience mental illnesses. Culture, background, and personal beliefs also shape the way people understand mental illnesses.


  • More than 6.7 million people in Canada are living with a mental health problem or illness today. By comparison 2.2 million people in Canada have type 2 diabetes.
  • Mental health problems and illnesses hit early in people’s lives. More than 28% of people aged 20-29 experience a mental illness in a given year. By the time people reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 people in Canada will have had or have a mental illness. [2]

What are Concurrent Disorders?

Concurrent disorders is a term used to refer to co-occurring addiction and mental health problems. It covers a wide array of combinations of problems, such as: anxiety disorder and an alcohol problem, schizophrenia and cannabis dependence, borderline personality disorder and heroin dependence, and bipolar disorder and problem gambling.

These problems can co-occur in a variety of ways. They may be active at the same time or at different times, in the present or in the past, and their symptoms may vary in intensity and form over time. [3]


  • People with a mental illness are twice as likely to have a substance use problem compared to the general population. At least 20% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use problem. For people with schizophrenia, the number may be as high as 50%.
  • Similarly, people with substance use problems are up to 3 times more likely to have a mental illness. More than 15% of people with a substance use problem have a co-occurring mental illness. [4]

Why is it important?

The onset of most mental illnesses occurs during adolescence and young adulthood. This affects educational achievement, occupational or career opportunities and successes, and the formation and nature of personal relationships. The effect extends throughout an individual’s life. The greater the number of episodes of illness that an individual experiences, the greater the degree of lasting disability. Receiving and complying with effective treatment and having the security of strong social supports, adequate income, housing and educational opportunities are essential elements in minimizing the impact of mental illness. [5]

The economic burden of mental illnesses in Canada on the health care system is estimated to be over $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity and criminal justice costs. [6]

An additional $6.3 billion was spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health care system. [7]


Mental health and substance abuse problems are common and come at an enormous cost to individuals, families, communities and systems.

The links between mental health and substance abuse issues are complex. They might develop independently as a result of common risk factors or one might lead to the other as a result of self-medication or prolonged distress. Prevention of and early intervention for mental health and substance use problems is best, but when concurrent disorders develop, they require specialized intensive services.

What does it look like?

Mental Health Disorders

Each illness has its own symptoms. The following are a few common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behaviour or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress [8]


There is no one symptom or group of symptoms common to all combinations. The combinations of concurrent disorders can be divided into five main groups:

  • substance use + mood and anxiety disorders, such as depression or panic disorder
  • substance use + severe and persistent mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder
  • substance use + personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, or problems related to anger, impulsivity or aggression
  • substance use + eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia
  • other substance use + mental health disorders, such as gambling and sexual disorders. [9]





  1. Canadian Mental Health Association – National. (2014). Mental Illness. Retrieved from
  2. Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2013). Making a Case for Investing in Mental Health in Canada. Retrieved from
  3. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Concurrent Disorders. Retrieved from addiction-index/concurrent-disorders
  4. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Mental Health and Addiction Facts and Stats. Retrieved from change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics
  5. Health Canada. (2002). A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada. Retrieved from
  6. Smetanin et al. (2011) The life and economic impact of major illnesses in Canada: 2011-2014. Prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Toronto: RiskAnalytica.
  7. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Mental Health and Addiction Facts and Stats. Retrieved from change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics
  8. National Alliance on Mental Health. Know the Warning Signs. Retrieved from
  9. Centre on Substance Abuse. (2013). When Mental Health and Substance Abuse Collide. Retrieved from