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Mental Health

Getting Help for Mental Illnesses

Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division


photo of a man talking on the phone

One day, you develop a nagging cough, or get sharp back pain. You wait a few days to see if things get worse or improve, then do some research or go to friends and family for advice. If the problem still doesn't go away on its own, you go to the doctor to get it checked out to find out what it is and what to do about it.

One day, you wake up and realize that you've been feeling different lately. You're not sure exactly what's wrong, but you've having a hard time getting through the day and just don't feel like yourself. Two months later, you're feeling even getting worse. You think it will go away on its own, that it's not serious, that it's all in your head. Maybe it's just your personality or your age or stress. You've tried a few things on your own, but nothing works. You're worried about what others might think if you. So you keep everything to yourself and hope it passes.

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 illnesses. 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. Symptoms of mental illnesses include:

  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy

  • Feeling angry or sad for little or no reason

  • Having strange thoughts or hearing voices that aren't real and don't go away

  • Often feeling run down or a bit sick even though doctors can’t find a reason

  • Changes in your usual eating habits

  • Changes in your usual sleep patterns

  • Unrealistic worries or fears around things in life over situations that are extremely unlikely

  • Missing a lot of time from work or school

  • Drinking or using drugs to cope with changes in your life

  • Avoiding people, even family and friends you usually enjoy seeing

  • Feeling like you want to end your life


Why should I get help?

Many people who experience a mental illness don't seek help, for many different reasons.

"I just need to snap out of it, I can deal with this on my own."

Fact: Mental illnesses are real illnesses—they are more than just the ups and downs of life. 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 it's needed.

"It's not serious enough to require help."

Fact: Mental illnesses can really get in the way of your well-being. They can affect your activities and relationships, make it harder to work well, and make you feel unwell. Mental illnesses can become more serious or harder to treat over time. Any time you're concerned about your mental health is a good time to seek help.

"If I go for help, people will judge me or think I'm crazy."

Fact: Mental illnesses are common and most people are affected by mental illnesses in some way, either through their own experiences or the experiences of loved ones. If you can't get support from family and friends or want to learn from people who know what you're going through, consider joining a support group. There are also support groups and educational materials to help family members and friends understand what you're going through. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It takes incredible strength and courage.

"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, including different psychotherapies and medications. A big part of treatment includes small things you do every day to take care of yourself, like getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep.

As with so many other illnesses, early treatment is the key to recovering from mental illnesses. Early treatment can prevent a problem from getting worse. The sooner you do something about it, the sooner you'll be back to yourself.


Who can provide help?

Your family doctor or nurse practitioner—can rule out any other causes for your symptoms, prescribe medications, 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. If you don't have a family doctor, you can visit a doctor at a walk-in clinic or on a telehealth platform.

Psychiatrists—Psychiatrists are doctors specially trained in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. They are covered under BC's Medical Services Plan (MSP), but you often need a referral from your family doctor or mental health program to see a psychiatrist. As with doctors, they can prescribe medications. While some psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy, it's most common to see a psychiatrist for an initial assessment or ongoing care if your diagnosis or medication is complicated.

Psychologists, counsellors and social workers—These professionals can help diagnose mental illnesses and provide psychotherapy, counselling, and other supports. These professionals can’t prescribe medication. Psychotherapy and counselling are not covered by MSP but they may be covered through a hospital program, mental health team, or through your workplace or school. Social workers often work on mental health teams, in clinics and hospital programs, and in schools.

Mental health teams—Mental health teams work out of mental health centres or hospitals. Different kinds of professionals including social workers, nurses, mental health workers, peer support workers, occupational therapists and others work together to support people with a mental illness. They provide assessment, treatments, support and training to help people live well and connections to income supports, housing, and other services. The referral process varies by health authority, but you can talk to your doctor to contact your mental health centre to ask about self-referral. Mental health teams are covered by MSP.


How do I find help?

  • Talk to your family doctor or nurse practitioner. You can see a doctor through a walk-in clinic or by appointment through a family practice. The doctor or nurse practitioner may suggest a treatment right away or they may refer you to a specialist like a psychiatrist.

  • Call HealthLinkBC at 811 to talk to a registered nurse about a health problem or concern. HealthLinkBC also has systems navigators who can help you find services in your area. For more information, visit

  • Use the Government of BC's Mental Health and Substance Use Service Map to find local health services and support organizations. Visit

  • Find psychotherapists and counsellors through their professional organizations:

    • BC Psychological Association:

    • BC Association of Clinical Counsellors:

  • Find a list of low-cost psychotherapy and counselling providers at

  • Many workplaces also offer counselling services through Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAP). EFAP counsellors provide short-term counseling to help you or a family member.

Help for children and youth
Help on campus
  • BC postsecondary campuses offer health and wellness services, including mental health services like assessment, counselling, and peer support. Talk to your campus to learn how to connect with health services.


Not sure where to start?

The BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information has information referral specialists who can help you find mental health and substance use services in your area. Visit

If you feel overwhelmed or need to talk to someone right away, call the BC Mental Health Support Line at 310-6789 (no area code) at any time.


Where can I learn more?

BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information

Visit for info sheets and personal stories about mental health problems and mental illnesses. You'll also find more information, tips and self-tests to help you understand many different problems, and resources located around the province.

Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

Visit 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 illness.


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  • eVisions: BC's Mental Health and Substance Use Journal, a theme-based magazine
  • Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses events and resources
  • Within Reach: Resources from HeretoHelp
  • Jessie's Legacy eating disorders prevention resources, events and information

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