Mental health — part of the conversation

March 24, 2017

The information in this article has been excerpted from Creating a Compassionate Classroom, published by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Global Television as part of the Healthy Minds — Bright Futures program. This publication is available for free at

Defining “mental illness” and “mental health problems”

No conversation about classroom complexity would be complete without a discussion of mental health.

Did you know that a person with a mental illness can be without a mental health problem? Or that those with a mental health problem don’t necessarily have a mental illness? These can be seen as two separate concepts.

“Mental illness” refers to conditions that can be diagnosed, such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anorexia.

“Mental health problems” on the other hand, describe the more common struggles and difficulties that all people experience. Feeling stressed, upset, confused or overwhelmed is often in response to a demand or pressure, but such feelings usually pass and do not require medical treatment. Nevertheless, these feelings also have a real impact on one’s mental health and our ability to thrive and enjoy life.

Mental illness vs. mental health problem

With young people, and teenagers especially, it may be hard to determine if what they are experiencing is a mental illness or if they are facing a mental health problem. Mental illnesses require attention from a professional, while mental health problems may simply need the support and attention of a caring adult.

While diagnosing a mental illness is only to be done by a mental health professional, these are a few suggestions to determine whether support and ­assistance is needed or if additional resources should be sought.

Mental health problems

• are a common experience of negative or upsetting ­emotions or thoughts,
• are generally triggered by an event or problem,
• are usually associated with emotions and behaviours that are not very severe and are relatively short lasting and don’t generally require professional help, but it may be useful.

Mental illness

• is a less common experience, and symptoms may occur in response to an event or problem or they may occur spontaneously.
• symptoms tend to be more severe and long lasting, and require professional help, which is essential in order for a positive prognosis.

Mental health factors

Good mental health is not the absence of mental illness. Rather, it can be seen as a state of well-being that allows one to flourish and fully enjoy life. Some of the factors that affect ­student mental health ­include

• feeling loved,
• self-esteem,
• empowerment,
• self-actualization,
• optimism,
• resilience and
• safe spaces.

Creating a Compassionate Classroom is available for free at

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