Back to Top What is mental illness? - The Ottawa Hospital


Hearing the words “mental illness” can be scary, but taking the time to learn what mental illness is, how common it is and how to find treatment can decrease the fear. Many Canadians with mental illness live full and productive lives.

Mental illness is illness that affects the brain

Illnesses like heart disease or diabetes interfere with the functions of major organs such as the heart or the pancreas. These diseases leave a person weak and tired, often unable to do the things he or she wants to do each day. Mental illness is similar; the only real difference is that the organ struggling to work effectively is the brain.

There are many different forms of mental illness, such as anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Each of these conditions has a different collection of symptoms. Doctors use these collections of symptoms to diagnose and make treatment decisions for each condition.

Psychosis is a mental illness that involves a loss of touch with reality

Psychosis is a collection of symptoms that may occur in a variety of mental and physical illnesses. Psychosis generally means that a person has lost the ability to recognize what’s real and what isn’t. People with psychosis may experience hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thoughts. The On Track program is specifically designed to help people with psychosis.

Mental illness occurs when the chemicals in the brain become unbalanced

Your brain is responsible for completing thousands of tasks at any given moment. These very vital tasks include:

  • Organizing the flow of your thoughts and speech
  • Taking in sensory stimuli like sight and sound
  • Organizing these stimuli and making an internal map of reality that matches up with the external world
  • Planning your actions and behaviours
  • Remembering things
  • Reacting in an emotionally appropriate way

Mental illness occurs when the chemicals in the brain become unbalanced and the tasks listed above can’t be performed as usual. It can be harder for people with a mental illness to understand and interact with the world around them. Thinking may become more difficult or may not be as clear. Feelings and moods may change, making it hard to relate to others. When this happens, many people begin to spend more time by themselves. They find it difficult to accomplish day-to-day tasks and may even stop doing things they once enjoyed.

Mental illnesses are treatable

Mental illness is just as treatable as diabetes or heart disease. Psychiatrists are doctors who help people who are living with mental illnesses. Early treatment minimizes the negative effects that mental illness can have on a person’s life.

When working with a person for the first time, the psychiatrist and the mental health team will do a mental health assessment and may recommend blood work or other tests. Following this, medication to help the brain chemicals work better, along with specific types of talk therapy, may be suggested. The mental health team will work with the person to identify and manage the types of stressors that may make the illness worse. They’ll also provide education and support and put the person in touch with other community resources.

We’re here to help!

Learning about, talking about and getting treatment for mental illness can help you or your friend or family member. You’re not alone! We’re here to help you get back on track.

Last updated on: December 14th, 2016