understanding mental illness

Learning more about mental illness can help you to talk openly and candidly and to better support your family member. This section provides basic information about mental illness and answers some of the questions you may have. It also provides other helpful resources where you will find more detailed information.

“Knowledge is power and to be without power is to be a victim. No one wants that.”

Some Terms

Just to be sure we all understand what we’re talking about in this handbook...

Mental health (or well-being) is a balance of mental, physical, emotional, social and spiritual health. Caring relationships, a place to call home, a supportive community, and work and leisure all contribute to mental health. No one’s life is perfect; mental health is also about handling life’s ups and downs.


Mental illness includes a range of specific conditions that cause serious disturbance in thoughts, feelings and perceptions severe enough to affect day-to-day life. There are many different types of mental illness; each has its own specific pattern of symptoms. Some common mental illnesses are schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorder and anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of mental illness often occur in cycles. An episode can last from weeks to months with times when no symptoms are evident. With children, these changes may be even more frequent. People will also differ in how severe their symptoms are. Mental illness, especially if left untreated, will affect your loved one’s quality of life. It will also affect those around him. More detailed definitions and explanations of common mental illnesses are included in the appendix.


Recovery is a process and a goal – it is learning to successfully manage mental illness, having control over symptoms and having quality of life. It involves overcoming the negative impact of mental illness despite its continued presence. Some describe recovery as a way of living in order to make the most out of life. It is about getting on with life in spite of having a mental illness. It can be described as a journey rather than any point in time.


Family member living with mental illness refers to someone you love and support. He or she can be a family member in the traditional sense– spouse, mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin - or a friend.


Family members and caregivers can be family members, friends or caregivers. We recognize that friends and caregivers can play as significant a role as family members in supporting someone living with mental illness. For the purposes of this handbook, any reference to family members is inclusive of friends and caregivers.


Health care professional refers to dietician, family doctor, occupational therapist, naturopath, nurse, psychiatrist, psychologist, recreation therapist, social worker, spiritual care worker – any health care professional who may be a member of your family member’s care team. This list is far from complete but provides some of the more common health care professionals.


Care plan outlines a person’s recovery goals and the supports that will help your family member in their recovery, e.g., medications, schedule of group sessions, health professional(s), employment counselling.


Wellness plan is a document written by a person living with mental illness that describes what keeps them well and what their warning signs of relapse are. It also lists all the key contacts in their lives and if they have an advance directive or living will.


Advance Directive is a living will that describes a person’s preference and wishes regarding care when they can no longer make decisions for themselves. It also describes the individual’s wishes in the event that their death is imminent. It usually involves talking with loved ones, physicians and others who provide support.


Care team includes anyone who is supporting your family member in their recovery – health professionals, alternative therapists, Elder, boss, minister, teacher.


Case manager supports people living with mental illness to achieve their recovery goals for housing, education, etc. Case management is defined in many different ways by many different agencies.


Family crisis plan includes simple instructions for family members on what to do in a crisis or emergency. It also includes the names and phone numbers of people who need to be contacted in the event of a crisis or emergency. A sample family crisis plan is included in the appendix.