Mental health is a fundamental dimension of overall health and an essential resource for living that influences how learners feel, perceive, think, communicate, and understand the world. Children and youths' understanding of positive influences on mental health (e.g., life, love, school, friendships, family) involves the development of their understanding of mental health indicators and behaviours (e.g., depression, anxiety, substance use, low self-esteem). Without good mental health, young people may be unable to fulfill their full potential or play an active part in everyday life. Discussions and activities relating to mental health can address many areas, from enhancing our emotional well-being, to treating and preventing severe mental illness, and preventing suicide. By providing ongoing opportunities for discussing and learning about mental health and mental illness, educators can initiate dialogue with learners who need additional help.
Talking About Mental Health and Mental Illness
Mental health and mental illness can be challenging topics to teach and discuss because of the wide range of experiences, information (or misinformation), and understandings of what mental health and mental illness are. Learners (and adults) receive this information from those around them, including their peers, siblings, parents, the media, and other adults such as yourself. So it is important to think about how your own perceptions of mental health and mental illness might impact how we discuss this important issue.
Oftentimes, the perceptions that learners have regarding mental health and mental illness are interconnected with their own personal experiences. For example, some learners may have a friend or family member who has experienced, or currently experiences, mental illness. Some of your learners might themselves have personally experienced poor mental health or mental illness. In fact, 1 in 7 students in Ontario from Grades 7–12 rate their mental health as poor/fair.
Stigma, which refers to negative attitudes (prejudice) and negative behaviour (discrimination), also has a profound impact on the way young people (and adults) discuss mental health and mental illness, and treat people experiencing mental illness. Cultural background can also have an impact on how young people talk (or don’t talk about) these issues.
Confusion may exist between the concepts of mental health and mental illness. For example, sometimes people may use the term “mental health” when they actually mean “mental illness.” Two widely accepted definitions of each of these terms follow:
Mental health: “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face”
Mental illness: “a biological condition of the brain that causes alterations in thinking, mood, or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning”
Just like “health,” “mental health” is a positive concept. “Mental illness,” on the other hand, though related to mental health, is distinct. Mental illness refers to illnesses that can include depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia to name a few.5 Just as mental health and mental illness are related, so are mental health and health. How we feel in our mind affects how we feel in our body, and vice versa.
Mental Health and Mental Illness Are Different, but Connected, Concepts
As the definitions for mental health and mental illness above suggest, mental health and mental illness are two different concepts. But they are not just opposites of one another. Often, people assume that you either have mental health or you have mental illness. But it is not that simple.
Like our physical health, our mental health is a component of each one of us that is always with us. This means that even if we have a mental illness, we can still have the potential to have good mental health with the right treatment and supports. Think about someone who has diabetes, which is a physical illness. With the right treatment and support, a person who has diabetes can still live an otherwise healthy life and function well. Similarly, even if someone has a mental illness, if they are receiving the right treatment (like medication or therapy) and have the social supports they need (e.g., friends and family who care about them), they can still cope and do well in life. Ultimately, reframing mental health as a positive concept and something that is attainable for all, even those with mental illness, can bring a positive and hopeful tone to discussions with young people about mental health.
Those who are interested in learning more about the connections between mental health and mental illness may be interested in the Dual Continua Model developed by a sociologist named Corey Keyes. Keyes describes mental health and mental illness as existing along intersecting continua: one continuum spans from poor mental health to optimal mental health, and the intersecting continuum ranges from no symptoms to serious mental illness. An adaptation of the Keyes model by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (2009) can be viewed on page 14 of The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, and Toronto Public Health’s Best practice guidelines for mental health promotion programs: Children (7-12) and youth (13-19) at porticonetwork.ca.
 Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. (2011). Open minds, healthy minds. Retrieved from http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/ministry/publications/reports/mental_health2011/mentalhealth_rep2011.pdf
 Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Supporting minds: an educator’s guide to promoting students’ mental health and well-being. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/SupportingMinds.pdf
 Boak, A., Hamilton, H.A., Adlaf, E.M., Beitchman, J.H., Wolfe, D., & Mann, R.E. (2014). The mental health and well-being of Ontario students, 1991-2013: Detailed OSDUHS findings. Retrieved from: https://www.camh.ca/-/media/files/pdf---osduhs/osduhs-brochure-pdf.pdf
 World Health Organization. (2012). Risks to mental health: an overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12.pdf
 Government of Canada. (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/human-humain06/pdf/human_face_e.pdf
 Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2009). Exploring positive mental health. Retrieved from https://www.cihi.ca/en/improving_health_canadians_en.pdf
 World Health Organization. (2014). Mental health: strengthening our response. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response