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Mental Health and Mental Illness

Information for youth

 Click here to download a printable version of the information from this page.

Mental health vs. mental illness

Many people talk about mental health and mental illness as if they were the same thing. But they’re not the same thing at all.

For starters, mental health is something we all have. Mental illness only affects some people. Just like physical health, there are some things that you can do to be mentally healthy and reduce your chances of developing a mental illness.

What is mental health?

Mental health is your brain’s ability to:

  • Make sense of and interact with the world around you;
  • Enjoy life;
  • Realize your personal potential;
  • Handle the ups and downs of everyday life.

Your brain (or mind) is the starting point for your mental health. It helps you manage pretty much everything in your life, like your:

  • Feelings;
  • Mood;
  • Thoughts;
  • Behaviours;
  • Relationships;
  • Responsibilities (like school or work).

Remember that your mind and body are closely linked-they are not separate. Mental health depends a lot on how well you take care of your body: how well you eat, and whether you get enough sleep and exercise.  

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness happens when problems with thoughts, feelings or behaviours get in the way of every day life: at home, school, work or in relationships.

For example, everyone feels sad or upset once in a while. But when these feelings become so strong that it’s hard to carry on at school or home, then it could mean a mental health problem.

Some of the most common mental illnesses for young people are depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders.

Did you know? In Ontario, 1 in 5 children and youth will have some type of mental health problem.

Can I have a mental illness and be mentally healthy at the same time?

Yes. It may sound strange, but we can have an illness and still have health. Do you know someone with diabetes? They may need a special diet, exercise plan and medications, but they can still feel ‘well’, and do the things they need to do. This is also true for mental illnesses. Youth with depression may need regular ‘talk’ therapy and medications. They may need help learning to cope with stress, or how to handle emotions. But when the depression is under control, they can feel well, enjoy school, friends and activities.  

What causes mental illness? 

Both mental illnesses and physical illnesses are caused by a combination of many things, for example:


The genes you get from your parents have a big role to play in whether of not you have a risk for developing a mental illness. If your parents or grandparents live with a mental illness, it’s something that could be passed down to you. But having a family history of mental illness doesn’t mean that you will develop one. There are lots of things you can do to take care of your mental health (more about this later!), and lower the chance that you’ll experience mental health problems. For example, some people have a family history of heart attacks. If they exercise, eat well and avoid smoking, they can really lower the chance that they’ll have a heart attack.


Your environment and your experiences have a big influence on your mental health. Your environment includes:

  • Family, friends and other support people;
  • Your home, neighbourhood and school;
  • Your culture;
  • Day to day stresses;
  • Life experiences;
  • Your family’s income;
  • Opportunities for learning, recreation and employment.

Did you know? Only 1 in 6 youth who would benefit from professional help get the help they need.

Your mindset

This meants:

  • The way you look at things (your point of view or ‘outlook’);
  • How you ‘explain’ your experiences to yourself;
  • The way you connect and interact with others;
  • How you cope with stress and feelings;
  • How you care for your physical and mental health;  (for example: eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, expressing feelings in a constructive way, problem solving).

You probably can think of 2 people in your life who look at the same situation very differently, and would respond to the same situation very differently. Some ways of looking at things promote mental health better than others. Some things that could help improve or prevent a mental illness:

  • Good social skills;
  • Positive ways to manage stress and feelings (ways of handling things that help to relieve stress, instead of making it worse).

The good news? You can learn how to do all of this stuff!

When should I be concerned and get help?

Talk to an adult you trust about getting help if:

  • You are overwhelmed by your feelings, and having trouble managing them;
  • Find your moods, feelings or behaviours are really getting in the way of your life at home, school, work or with friends;
  • You’re noticing big changes in your eating or sleeping patterns;
  • You’re pulling away from friends;
  • You’re just not interested in things you used to like (for example, school, sports or other activities);
  • You’re feeling hopeless, or that your life is not worth living;
  • You have thoughts of suicide.  

Stigma: Negative Attitudes about Mental Illness

Youth often feel ashamed, guilty or embarrassed about having a mental health problem. They may be afraid of being judged by others. This ‘stigma’ is a big reason why youth don’t reach out for help when they need it. Youth may believe that the struggles they are having are signs of weakness or that they really have no good reason to feel the way they do. Some youth may just ‘tough it out’, and not seek support.

Did you know?  63% of youth say they have a hard time asking for help because of embarrassment, fear, peer pressure and stigma.

What helps to change attitudes about mental illness?

You can help to reduce stigma and change attitudes about mental illness by:

  • Talking about mental health with people around you;
  • Trying to think about mental health and illness the same way you think about physical health and illness;
  • Accepting friends going through mental health struggles and offering support;
  • Not blaming yourself or others;
  • Asking for help when you need it-this sets a great example for others!

How can I prevent mental health problems?

Just like we can prevent physical health problems, we can also reduce our chances of developing mental health problems. We can do things to promote our physical health, by eating healthy food, exercising, not smoking or wearing a seatbelt. But even if we do all these things, we sometimes still get sick or hurt. It’s just the same for mental health. Sometimes a situation is just too difficult, or feelings too overwhelming to handle alone.

Some ways to prevent mental health problems-try to practice these every day!

You may find these helpful, but if you don’t, that’s OK too.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise daily-even a walk makes a difference! Try to get outside, too.
  • Try to surround yourself with positive, supportive people.
  • Eat plenty of nutritious foods.
  • Spend time everyday doing things that make you feel good.
  • Take time to relax.
  • Use problem solving skills and effective ways to reach your goals.
  • When you are upset, try to see things from other people’s point of view.
  • Be in touch with your feelings, and talk with close friends and family about your thoughts and how you feel.
  • Learn ways to calm yourself when you get stressed (maybe yoga or mindfulness).
  • Instead of constantly thinking about problems or worries, try working to solve the problem. Or distract yourself for a while with something you enjoy.
  • Try new things, or learn to master a new hobby.
  • Forgive yourself and forgive others.
  • Learn to say no.
  • Go offline.

What should I do if I think I have a mental illness?

You don’t have to be alone through this. Depression, anxiety or other mental health problems often trick people into thinking that they don’t deserve help, but that’s the mental health problem speaking. Start by letting a trusted adult know. Start thinking about resources and supports inside you and around you. You’ll see more information about community resources at the end of this fact sheet. For example:


  • Positive coping (how have you handled rough times in the past?);
  • Being able to reach out for support;
  • Helpful ways of thinking about things.


  • Parents;
  • Brothers, sisters;
  • Grandparents, cousins, uncles or aunts.


Friends can be a great support, but you need to make sure that you share your struggles with an adult who can help. Friends aren’t always able to connect you to the help you need.

School and Community

  • Family doctor;
  • Teachers, school social workers or counsellors;
  • Community health or resource centres, youth organizations, hospitals;
  • Telephone support lines.

Ask for the help you need...

  • "I’d like if we could do something fun, just to get my mind off things for a while..."
  • "Can we talk? I'm not feeling well these days, and I think I need your help with it..."
  • "I need someone to go to an appointment with me..."
  • "I just need someone to listen to me..."

Problem solving 101

It’s always easier to handle things if you break them down into smaller bits first. You might find this a helpful way to work through a problem in a positive way. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Writing things down may also help you to organize your thoughts a little better.

1 Define the problem.

What’s bothering you? Does something need to change? This has to be something that is important to you. If it isn’t, you’re not likely to put any real energy into solving it. Be as clear and specific as you can.

For example... You’ve noticed a change in your moods lately. Your parents seem to be way more irritiating, way more often. This has led to many arguments that leave everyone feeling upset. What often leads to these arguments? In this case, it’s getting up in the morning and getting to school on time.

The problem: You’re late for school about 3 days each week. Fighting with your parents every morning starts your day off on the wrong foot, and you feel lousy for a long time afterward.

2 Set a goal.

What would you like things to be like? Having a goal in mind will really help you get there, but make sure your goal is realistic. You may not be able to get an A+ in math. But you could go from a failing grade to a ‘C’. Keep track of your progress. When you meet your goal, you can build on your success by setting other goals.

For example, a realistic goal about getting to school on time.... may be to arrive at school on time at least 4 times a week. If you surpass your goal, that’s great too!

3 Brainstorm options.

Think of all the possible ways to make things better. Be sure to think about:

  • Things you might need to learn or practice
  • Things you may need to change
  • Actions you can take
  • People who can support you or help to solve the problem

For example, things that might help me get to school on time...

  • I could go to bed earlier
  • Read in bed to help me fall asleep (instead of gaming or doing other stuff on my laptop)
  • Set my alarm before going to bed
  • Set my alarm to give me enough time to get ready in the morning
  • Do some things the night before to make the mornings easier
  • Speak with my parents and let them know what will help and what won’t help

4 Make your plan.

Write out what you’re going to do to meet your goal. It will help to be as realistic and specific as possible. Change doesn’t happen overnight, though. Change usually happens in smaller steps, over time. And think about how you’ll handle mistakes and setbacks.

This is where you try to focus on the stuff you will do, instead of the outcome. If you goal is to improve your grades, break things down into manageable actions like:

  • Go to class everyday
  • Spend ___ hours each night on homework
  • Limit screen time to ___ hours a day

For example, to get to school on time...

  • Be in bed by ___ pm on school nights
  • Read in bed instead of using the computer
  • Shower before bed
  • Tell my parents what I’m trying to do, and ask for their support.

5 Get started and follow through.

Keep track of the actions you’re taking. This can help you see the progress you’re making. Plan some little ‘rewards’ for yourself, for sticking to your plan. Don’t freak out if you mess up-everyone slides a bit when trying to make a change. Learn from it, and move on.

For example...

Put check marks on your calendar on the days you get to school on time. When you’ve met your weekly goal for a few weeks in a row, reward yourself! Sometimes, the ‘reward’ can be as simple as focusing on the results, like a more peaceful household. You can also celebrate by doing something special on Fridays, like watching a new release movie or going out with friends.

6 Reflect.

Think about what’s working and what’s not working. Be sure to pay attention to the things that may be getting better. Ask yourself:

  • Is your goal realistic?
  • What part of the plan am I having trouble with?
  • Do you need:
    • More time?
    • More support?
    • A different plan?

For example, ask yourself:

  • Are you fighting less with your parents?
  • How is your mood?
  • Was your plan effective?
  • Were there any other benefits?
  • How hard was this?
  • Should you try something else?
  • If your plan is working, how can you keep it going?

What to expect from mental health professionals and support lines

Most mental health professionals will be able to help you with many questions and concerns you may have. People you can talk to include (but are not limited to):

  • Your school counsellor;
  • Your family doctor;
  • A community counsellor (often found in your local community health or resource centre);
  • Trained volunteers;
  • A social worker;
  • A psychologist;
  • A psychiatrist.  

These professionals are used to hearing all about sorts of situations, so don’t worry about scaring them off. When you share your concerns, they will:

  • Listen without judging;
  • Keep it confidential;
  • Include others if you are feeling unsafe;
  • Try to get a better understanding of your unique situation by asking questions;
  • Explore strategies that have worked for you in the past;
  • Share information, tips and tricks for you to consider;
  • Consider referring you to another service or professional who might be more helpful or specialised.

For more information on all the different types of services and professionals out there, check out our Mental Health Services handout.  

Before you speak to a mental health professional...

Asking for help is not easy, but it is often the first step to getting better. Many youth tell us they wish they had asked for help sooner. It will be easier to speak with a counsellor if you think about a few things ahead of time. You may even want to write things down.

Start by asking yourself:

  • What’s bothering me? Write down or describe your concern by asking yourself:
  • What have I noticed?
  • When does it happen?
  • Where does it happen?
  • Why do I think it happens?
  • What have I tried to make things better?
  • What am I hoping to get out of my visit (or conversation)?

If you want extra support, ask a family member or friend to help you (you don’t have to be alone). If you have questions, write them down so you don’t forget.

Finding help in Ottawa

  • In a crisis? Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1-877-377-7775
  • Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa (YSB), for ages 12-20. 613-562-3004  YSB helps youth with troubles affecting their physical and emotional well-being and development.
  • Kids Help Phone Line, Canada’s only free, national, bilingual, confidential and anonymous, 24-hour telephone and online counselling service for youth – 1.800.668.6868
  • Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region 613-238-3311 A 24-hr distress line for those 16 years and older. Offers services throughout Eastern Ontario
  • Family Service Centre of Ottawa, 613-725-3601
  • Catholic Family Services, 613-233-8418
  • Jewish Family Services, 613-722-2225
  • The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre (by physician referral), 613-737-7600 ext. 2496. For more information on our programs, CHEO
  • To find a Psychologist in Ottawa: Call the Ottawa Academy of Psychology referral service, 613-235-2529.

Finding help in Eastern Ontario

  • In a crisis? Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1-877-377-7775
  • Kids Help Phone Line Canada’s only free, national, bilingual, confidential and anonymous, 24-hour telephone and online counselling service for youth – 1.800.668.6868
  • Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region 613-238-3311 A 24-hr distress line for those 16 years and older in Eastern Ontario.
  • eMental Health is a bilingual directory of mental health services and resources for Eastern Ontario.
  • Renfrew County: Phoenix Centre for Children, Youth and Families, with offices in Renfrew and Pembroke. 613-735-2374 or toll-free 1-800-465-1870
  • Leeds and Grenville County: Children’s Mental Health of Leeds and Grenville, with offices in Brockville, Elgin, Gananoque and Prescott. 613-498-4844
  • Lanark County: Open Doors for Lanark Children and Youth, with offices in Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Perth. 613-283-8260
  • Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry and Akwesasne (Cornwall Island): Single Point Access-for all child, youth, family and mental health services. Services in French and English. Main office, Cornwall, Ontario 613-938-9909 Toll free 1-888-286-KIDS (5437). Satellite office in Winchester.
  • Cornwall and area: Child and Youth Counselling Services (CYCS)- (Cornwall Community Hospital) provides assessment, therapy, and counseling. Services provided in English. Office in Cornwall 613-932-1558, limited outreach services in Winchester office.
  • To find a Psychologist anywhere in Ontario: College of Psychologists of Ontario, 1-800-489-8388 


Youth Net/Réseau Ado (YN/RA) Ottawa

A bilingual, regional, mental health promotion and intervention program run by youth, for youth with full professional support through the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Offers art, snowboarding, hiking and yoga programs. Visit for more information.  

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