05/08/2015 08:30 EDT | Updated 05/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Mental Health Awareness Week Helps Us Talk About the Tough Stuff

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"I'm fine" seems to be the phrase of choice when someone asks how we're doing. We rarely take a moment to check in with ourselves and see if we are truly "fine." With Mental Health Week upon us in Canada, now is the perfect time to talk about all of the things we don't normally discuss. This week is a time to not only raise awareness about mental illness, but to also consider ways to improve our mental health.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) introduced Mental Health Week in 1951 and this year marks their 64th anniversary of promoting mental health and supporting those with mental illnesses. According to CMHA, 20 per cent of the population (that's approximately seven million Canadians) live with a mental illness. If one in five Canadians is battling a mental illness, it goes without saying that someone you know is affected. This year's theme focuses on the mental health and well-being of men and boys.

Too often though, society's primary caregivers, women, put their family first and ensure that their husbands, brothers, sons and friends are taking care of their health, including their mental well-being. Although the dialogue for this year's Mental Health Week is focused on the men in our lives, it is imperative for women to also take care of themselves in order to care for those around them.

Every time you board an airplane, you are advised that, in case of emergency, always put your oxygen mask on first before you help someone else with theirs. This is a difficult notion for women to concede to because we are hardwired to protect and stand guard over our families. But it's important to protect our own mental health as well. Women are 40 per cent more likely than men to develop a mental illness, which is influenced by various social factors such as increased caregiving responsibilities. We need to care for ourselves in order to better care for those around us.

When we discuss mental health, conversation often surrounds illnesses such as depression and anxiety. The Women's Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) is working to inform the public that brain-aging diseases like dementia are mental health issues as well, and should be treated as such. Mental illness should be considered more like a continuum, considering many types of cognitive impairment, with dementia and Alzheimer's at the extreme end.

This is why Mental Health Week is important, to dig deeper into these conversations and go beyond the surface of our general notions of mental illness. In addition to including brain-aging diseases in the classification of mental health issues, WBHI aims to help individuals understand that you can encourage good brain health by managing stress and anxiety levels. Studies have shown that chronic levels of the stress hormone cortisol accelerate the onset of brain-aging diseases such as Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. Other lifestyle factors that you can manage that influence the health of your brain include diet, sleep and exercise.

This week, I invite you all to share how you really feel. Are you fine? Or is there more to the story? If we can support and encourage positive mental health in our homes and within our networks we can start improving overall brain health in our communities.


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