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There is a growing awareness and understanding of the impact of mental illness on Canadians – especially when substance abuse is involved.

But, despite the increasing social change, there remains a persisting stigma around mental illness that prevents people from seeking help. Sadly, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for adolescents and middle-aged people in Canada.

To reduce the harm caused by mental health disorders and substance abuse, it’s important to educate ourselves on these issues. 

By understanding the underlying causes of both mental illness and substance abuse, we can start to identify the warning signs early, and learn to communicate about our problems with loved ones so that recovery can begin.

What Is A Mental Health Disorder?

Mental health disorders, also known as mental illnesses, are health conditions that affect our behaviour, thoughts, and feelings – or all three together. Mental illness is associated with:

  • Trauma
  • Distress
  • Struggling to function socially, at work, or with family


In the past, mental illness has been misunderstood by society and even by medical professionals. Thankfully, advances in neuroscience and social norms have helped to break down the stigma around mental health and mental ill-health.

Today, we understand that mental illnesses are very common. 

1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem in any given year, and 8% of adults will experience major depression at least once in their lives.

Mental health disorders are not only common, but they’re also treatable. Contrary to past assumptions that mental illnesses are lifelong ailments, like a disability, we now know that the majority of people who live with a mental illness can function and thrive in their daily lives.

What is Mental Health?

To understand mental ill-health, we also need to think about what we mean by ‘mental health’ and how that relates to our overall health as a whole.

Our mental health is the basis for the way we process emotions and thoughts, how we communicate with others, how we learn, our resilience to stressors, and also our self-esteem and body image.

Being mentally ‘well’ is important for us to maintain healthy relationships externally, but also sustain a good relationship with ourselves in our wellbeing. Being in a good place with our mental health helps us to be a more positive and active part of our community and contribute to society.

Diagnosing A Mental Health Disorder

diagnosing mental health disorder

Mental health disorders manifest very differently for everyone. While cases of mental illness can be mild and don’t interfere too much with daily life, more severe conditions require time in a hospital or restriction from certain activities.

It’s important to know that mental health disorders can affect anybody. People of all ages, genders, ethnicities, incomes, sexual orientations, social statuses, and cultural identities can be affected by mental illness. 

Although it’s difficult to know exactly when a problem with emotions, thoughts, and feelings becomes a mental health disorder, experts tend to agree that normal undulations in mental health become more serious when they interfere with daily life. 

Diagnosing a mental health disorder can require:

  • Appointments with a psychologist
  • Blood tests
  • Neurological tests


Once someone has been diagnosed, they can start the journey of treating their mental illness and learning how to prevent it from getting in the way of living a happy and healthy life.

Treatment for mental health disorders varies greatly, from counselling to medications to alternative therapies. Regardless of the treatment plan that an individual chooses, they must always consult with a professional and put their wellbeing first.

What Causes Mental Health Disorders?

The causes of mental health disorders are extremely complex. Identifying the ‘how’ or ‘why’ behind an individual’s mental illness can take months or years of therapy.

We’ll take a look at three ‘types’ of causes:

  1. Environmental and genetic factors
  2. Risk factors
  3. Complications

1. Environmental and Genetic Factors

Mental health disorders often originate from the environment and genetic makeup of the individual. These factors are completely outside our control, but sadly they can have a huge impact on our mental health and our susceptibility to certain mental illnesses.

Environmental & Genetic Factor How?
Genetics Mental illnesses are often inherited. Certain mental health disorders are more likely to be inherited than others. For example, bipolar is the most likely psychiatric disorder to be passed down from family.
Environmental exposure while in the womb If the mother is exposed to environmental stressors or certain toxins while she is pregnant, this can have a detrimental impact on the baby. The use of alcohol and drugs by pregnant mothers is linked to mental illness in the baby.
Brain chemistry Our thoughts, feelings, and responses are controlled by neurotransmitters that send signals throughout the brain and the body. If neurotransmitters don’t function properly, this can lead to mental health disorders.

2. Risk Factors

Certain experiences, decisions, and exposures during an individual’s life can increase their risk of developing a mental health disorder.

While we have some control over some of these decisions, it’s neither fair nor helpful to place responsibility on the individual for actions that led to their developing a mental illness.

Risk Factor Example
A stressful or tragic experience Overwhelming debt, the sudden death of a family member, and divorce are deeply troubling life events that can cause mental illness.
Dealing with a medical condition Experiencing a chronic condition, such as diabetes, suffering from a debilitating illness or undergoing intensive surgery puts individuals in a vulnerable position that makes them highly susceptible to mental health disorders.
Injury to the brain Serious accidents that result in bad concussions, comas, or injuries to the brain put individuals at a higher risk of developing a mental illness.
Substance abuse or alcoholism Using dangerous substances in a harmful way puts people at risk of overdose and of damaging their mental health.
Abuse Mental health disorders often manifest due to child abuse and neglect.

3. Complications

Aside from the environmental, genetic, and risk factors associated with mental illnesses, there are many more factors that contribute to someone’s susceptibility to mental illness. These factors can be grouped into ‘complications’.

Some examples of complications are:

  • Conflict in the family home or with the spouse
  • Isolation from other people
  • Addiction
  • Absence from work or school
  • Poverty
  • Immunity problems


These examples are all highly complex and difficult to break down into simple terms. However, looking into potential complications is essential when diagnosing, treating, and preventing harm from mental illness.

Signs & Symptoms Of Developing Mental Health Disorders

While there are specific symptoms for certain mental illnesses, there are also very general signs of developing mental illnesses that everyone should be aware of. 

If you’re worried that you or someone you love is suffering from a mental health disorder, look out for the following symptoms:

Feeling Down For Long Periods Of Time


This is more than just having a bad day or feeling low. Sustained periods of low mood that continue for days or weeks at a time are a clear sign of mental ill-health. Pay attention to how often you or someone you love smiles and laughs, and consider the conversations that are being had – are they disproportionately negative?

Loss Of Appetite

Changes in our eating habits are a common sign of something not being right. If someone is suffering from or developing a mental health disorder, they are more likely to skip meals. This might not be due to self-harming thoughts, or disordered eating, but just because the brain is not functioning as normal and telling the person that they are hungry.

[TW] Engaging In Self-Harm Or Self-Sabotaging Activities

Discussing self-harm can be a triggering subject. If you’re having thoughts about self-harm, we advise that you skip this section.

When we think of self-harm, we might think of someone cutting themselves, pinching, burning their skin, pulling hair or eyelashes.

But self-harm also involves pursuing dangerous activities, such as:

  1. Abusing substances
  2. Breaking the law
  3. Taking poison


If you feel that someone you know is self-harming, and you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about it, approach a doctor or interventionist to discuss the best option.

Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously. If you or someone you know is having thoughts about self-harm, call Crisis Services Canada.

Loss Of Interest In Activities

When someone withdraws from hobbies, interests, sports, or friendship groups that previously made them feel happy, this is a clear sign that they’re struggling with their mental health.

Detachment From Reality

Dissociation is a common symptom of mental illness (and substance abuse) that causes the individual to lose track of time and place. They might feel like they don’t know who they are, where they are, or what is happening.

This can be a frightening experience for the individual and their loved ones, so we advise that you approach this situation carefully and seek help from a professional.

The Relationship Between Mental Health Disorders & Substance Abuse

mental health and substance abuse

There is a strong correlation between mental illness, substance abuse, and drug addiction. Someone can start with one problem and end up suffering from the two others, the relationship between them varies from person to person.

The following statistics demonstrate the correlation between substance abuse and mental health disorders:

  • 50% of people with mental health disorders are affected by substance abuse
  • 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers have a mental illness
  • 29% of all people with mental illness abuse either alcohol or drugs


When someone suffers from both substance abuse and a mental health disorder, this is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. 

This situation is extremely complicated, and it can be hard to pinpoint which problem started first, as both issues start to affect each other. Substance abuse and mental health disorders have almost identical symptoms, which makes it challenging for the person to recover without seeking professional help.

There are three prime examples of how substance abuse and mental health disorders interact:

  1. Using substances to self-medicate the mental illness
  2. Increased risk of mental illness due to substance abuse
  3. Worsening symptoms of mental health disorder due to substance abuse


If you’re worried that you or someone you love might be struggling with both substance abuse and a mental illness, the following questions will help you identify the problem.

  • Does the person use substances to deal with how they’re feeling, cope with tasks, or endure situations?
  • Does the person’s mental health change with their substance use – does it make them feel depressed, or does their mental state dictate their substance use?
  • Does the person feel depressed, anxious, or out of touch with reality even when they’re not using substances?
  • Does the person come from a family or background where mental illness or substance abuse was experienced?


Keep in mind that it’s very common for people struggling with substance abuse and mental health disorders to deny their actions. Denial is a defence mechanism and can be covering feelings of guilt, sadness, and helplessness. 

If you believe that someone you love is in denial about their substance abuse and mental illness, it’s important to not get angry or upset with them. 

Instead, talk to a doctor, counsellor, or interventionist about the best way forward.

Treatment Options For Substance Abuse Due To Mental Health Issues

When it comes to treating a dual-diagnosis, it’s impossible to tackle one problem followed by the other. Because substance abuse and mental health issues are so tightly woven together, an integrated approach is necessary to address and treat both problems simultaneously.

Treatment for mental illness Counselling, group therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, self-help
Treatment for substance abuse Intervention, managing withdrawal, detoxing, behavioural therapy, support groups

Let’s take a look at the treatment options for substance abuse and mental health issues:

Counselling & Therapy

Once an individual has committed to treatment, they can start going to counselling or therapy. There are many different methods of counselling available, including:

  • Group therapy
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • One-on-one counselling
  • Emergency counselling


Although methods vary, counselling involves an assessment of the underlying causes of both substance abuse and mental illness. 

The patient evaluates their life, background, decisions, thoughts, and feelings, with the guidance of a trained professional who can facilitate healthy discussion.

The end-goal of counselling is to teach the individual healthier behaviours and tools to resist substance abuse.



Interventions are a drastic yet effective method of addressing an individual’s substance abuse problem while facilitating their commitment to recovery.

Interventions involve the family or loved ones surrounding the individual, which is what makes them so effective. 

Interventions involve:

  1. Prior discussion and planning with the family 
  2. Scheduled intervention with the individual 
  3. Admission to a treatment facility (if necessary)
  4. One-on-one and family counselling starts
  5. Education and workshops to develop skills and strategies


When seeking a professional interventionist, try to find someone with as much experience and understanding of your situation as possible.

Treatment Centers 

Treatment centers are dedicated locations where people struggling with substance abuse and mental illness can recover safely.

There are many different kinds of treatment centers focused on a diverse range of problems, with varying specialization, such as:

  • Female-only or male-only centers
  • Treatment centers with cultural sensitivity
  • Youth treatment centers
  • Privately-funded or publicly funded treatment


Andy Bhatti has experience working with many types of treatment centers across Canada and around the world. He can listen to your needs and find the perfect solution to ensure the success of your recovery and rehabilitation.

Psychiatric Hospital

In more severe cases of substance abuse and mental illness, an individual may need to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. 

They may do this willingly because they have already committed to recovery, or involuntarily because their mental health is a concern – and there are fears that they may harm themself or others.

Treatment in the hospital will vary on the severity of the individual’s condition, but individuals will stay in a safe and secure environment and receive treatment and support from:

  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Psychiatrists
  • Social workers
  • Recreational therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Other support workers

Conclusion: Raise Awareness About Mental Illness And Substance Abuse

If we can break down the stigma around mental illness and substance abuse, we can make it easier for individuals and their families to seek help and recover from their problems. 

In a country where suicide is so prevalent, especially in our youth, having a better understanding of these problems can save lives.

Andy Bhatti is a professional interventionist with a first-hand understanding of what it means to suffer from substance abuse and mental illness. 

With Andy Bhatti and his dedicated team, individuals and families can hope for a better future and start making the steps towards living a happier and healthier life.

For more information about our services and to discuss your unique needs, talk to our team today.