Mental health refers to a state of wellbeing of health. Mental health and physical health are linked together. Mental health refers to the ability to enjoy life, to express emotions, to adapt to life’s challenges and changes, and to reach out for new opportunities. Mental illness refers to a state of being unwell. There are many different kinds of mental illnesses and all are treatable.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 1.2 million children and youth are affected by mental illness; only 20% of these young people receive treatment. Considering that close to 70% of adults affected by mental illness say that their symptoms began in childhood and adolescence, the need for early identification and intervention cannot be underestimated. So, why are only 20% being treated?
The answer to this question is specific to the individual. However, one of the most common reasons individuals are not treated is stigma. Stigma regarding mental health is widespread in our society. Stigma refers to the negative, misinformed attitudes or opinions that impact the way that people treat those with mental illness. Stigma results in prejudice. Prejudice spreads through society as a result of misinformation and fear.
Stigma can prevent young people or the parents of younger children from seeking help and information. Imagine that your child has an ear infection. Would you have a difficult time taking him to the doctor? Would you worry about what other people might say? Would you worry that a diagnosis and subsequent treatment would impact your child’s self-esteem? Would you be concerned that your child may be bullied because of his infection?
It is a shame that mental illness carries such a large stigma, while physical illness does not. Just as people do not ask to be physically ill, neither do we ask to be mentally ill. A person does not want to experience the symptoms caused by the illness. Like many who experience chronic physical illnesses (such as diabetes or asthma), those with mental illness also need support, encouragement, and ongoing access to services.
Early childhood is the best time to build a foundation of mental health. During the first 6 years of life, children develop the skills that will help them be emotionally, mentally, socially, and physically healthy throughout their lives. These skills can act as protective factors against illness, and can also help individuals to return to a state of health if they become ill.