Getting Help for Mental Disorders

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IMAGINE THIS: One day, you develop a nagging cough, or get sharp back pain. Most of us wait a few days to see if things get worse or improve, then we might do some research on things we can do at home. We go to friends and family for advice. If the problem still doesn’t go away on its own, we usually go to the doctor to get it checked out so it doesn’t get worse and to find out what it is, what to do about it, and how to prevent it.

NOW IMAGINE THIS: One day, you wake up and realize that emotionally, you’ve been feeling different lately. You’re not sure what it is but you (or others) notice that you’re acting differently, feeling unlike yourself and having thoughts that bother you. Two months later, you still feel the same way—it’s even getting worse—but you still haven’t asked for help. You think it will go away on its own, that it’s not serious, that it’s all in your head. You reason that maybe it’s just your personality or your age or stress.

Things you might try on your own don’t seem to help. Or maybe you suspect what it could be and you’re scared of what family, friends and coworkers would say. So you keep it to yourself and just try to get by day to day, hoping it will change.

Why do we treat our mental health so differently from our physical health?

How do I know if I need help?

There are many kinds of mental disorders. Although mental illnesses have a lot in common with each other, each type is quite different. Symptoms of mental illness can look different from person to person. Just like physical illness, symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe and you don’t have to show every possible symptom to have the illness. Probably the best way to know if you might have a mental disorder is if you’re not feeling, thinking or acting like yourself—or if people you care about notice changes in you like some of the following:

  • I suddenly no longer have interest in activities I used to enjoy

  • I find myself feeling angry or sad for little or no reason

  • I have strange thoughts or voices that I can’t seem to get rid of

  • I used to be healthy, but now I always feel a bit sick

  • I eat a lot more or less than I used to

  • My sleep patterns have changed

  • I feel fear, worry and terror about things in life that people around me seem to cope well with

  • I’ve been missing more and more time from work or school

  • I have a constant fear that someone is going to hurt me

  • I’ve been drinking heavily and/or using drugs to cope

  • I find myself avoiding people

  • Sometimes I just want to die

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Why should I get help?

In a Canadian mental health survey, only a third of us who had feelings and symptoms of a mental illness went to a professional for help; that means that most people (two-thirds) who had symptoms of mental illness didn’t ask for help. There are a number of mental health myths that prevent people from getting the help they need:

  • Myth: I just need to snap out of it, I can deal with this on my own. Fact: Mental disorders are real illnesses—they are more than just the ups and downs of life—and like other illnesses they need to be treated. This doesn’t mean you won’t have an important role to play in your health; but part of taking care of yourself means getting professional attention when your life is being affected by your symptoms.

  • Myth: It’s not serious enough to require help. Fact: Untreated mental illnesses are among the most disabling of all health problems in terms of lost potential and productivity, according to the World Health Organization. Because suicide is so often linked to untreated mental illness, mental illness must always be taken seriously.

  • Myth: If I go for help, the people I care about will judge me and think I’m “crazy” or weak. Fact: It’s true that some people will find it easier or harder to ask for help. You may find it both useful and comforting to meet others going through what you are, so you can see for yourself that mental illness can affect anyone. If you’d like to help your family and friends learn more, there are lots of support groups and educational resources to help them understand what you’re going through, as well as deal with their questions and worries. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it takes incredible strength and courage.

  • Myth: What’s the point of getting help? Treatments don’t work anyway. Fact: There has been great progress in the development of treatments for mental illness. There are a variety of well-researched and effective therapies available, from special kinds of counseling to medications, light therapy and other treatments. For example, 80% of people who have depression can be successfully treated.

As with so many other illnesses, early treatment is the key to recovering from mental disorders. The sooner you get treated, the less time you’ll spend in treatment, and the better chance you’ll catch it before it gets worse. In other words, the sooner you do something about it, the sooner you’ll be back to yourself. More good news is that the same national survey that found that most people didn’t get help for their mental health problems, found that those who did get help were happy with the help they received.

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Who can provide professional help?

  • Your family doctor — can rule out any other causes for your symptoms, prescribe medications, do limited counseling and refer you to a psychiatrist or other special services. For many people, family doctors are the main source of professional support for managing a mental illness. They are a good resource for information and a great place to start getting help.

  • Psychiatrists — are doctors specially trained in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. They are covered under BC’s Medical Services Plan (MSP) but you will need a referral from your family doctor or mental health program to see one. As doctors, they can prescribe medications and many psychiatrists also do counseling.

  • Counselors — include psychologists, clinical counselors, and social workers. These professionals can help diagnose mental illnesses and provide counseling that can look at your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Because they are not doctors, they cannot prescribe medication. Unless they are part of a hospital program or mental health team, they are usually not covered by MSP. Some counselors charge their fees based on your income.

    Other sources of counseling:

  • Schools and campuses provide counseling services to students.

  • Many workplaces also offer counseling services through benefit programs like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and through extended health coverage. EAP counselors provide short-term counseling to deal with specific issues. Most EAP programs are for both the employee and the employee’s family.

  • If you belong to a certain group, you may have access to counseling through special services. For example, military veterans can access counseling through Veterans Affairs Canada. An aboriginal person can access counseling through their Band, Friendship Centre, Aboriginal Mental Health program, or a branch of Health Canada. A member from a faith community may have access to a helpline or counselor through the networks connected to their place of worship.

  • Mental health teams — are another resource. Most communities in BC have both an adult mental health team (or centre) as well as one for children and youth under 19. Mental health centres use teams of different kinds of professionals including social workers, nurses, mental health workers, peer support workers, occupational therapists and others. Physicians often consult there as well. Mental health teams provide assessment and an ongoing connection for people with long-term mental disorders. They can also provide life skills support and connection to other community assistance, such as income or housing. You can refer yourself, but centres appreciate a referral from a family doctor (and busier centres will require a referral). They are covered by MSP.

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How do I get the help I need?

We suggest you see a family doctor (also known as a general practitioner or GP) to rule out other explanations for symptoms you may be feeling. You can see a doctor through a walk-in clinic or by appointment through a family practice. If you don’t have a family doctor and would like to find one, contact the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons for a list of doctors accepting patients at www.cpsbc.ca or 1-800-461-3008 (toll-free in BC) or 604-733-7758 (in Greater Vancouver). Available in English only.

Other helpful resources are:
BC Mental Health Information Line
Call 1-800-661-2121 (toll-free in BC) or 604-669-7600 (in Greater Vancouver) for information, community resources, or publications.

BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca for personal stories and information about different mental disorders, including our Mental Disorders Toolkit. The Toolkit is full of information, tips and self-tests to help you understand your mental disorder.

Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
Visit www.cmha.bc.ca or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and community resources on mental health or any mental disorder.

 

Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.