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Mental Health Literacy Can Potentially Save Lives

We should be talking about brain health the same way we do, say, heart health. In school, we're taught about heart disease and stroke, and how healthy eating and exercise can help us combat and prevent these diseases. And that's very important, but we should be doing the same when it comes to mental health.
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Written by Dr. Mark Sinyor, staff psychiatrist in the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.

We all have a mental health.

Which is why we should be talking about brain health the same way we do, say, heart health.

In school, we're taught about heart disease and stroke, and how healthy eating and exercise can help us combat and prevent these diseases. And that's very important, but we should be doing the same when it comes to mental health. Why? Because as they say -- and quite literally in this case-- knowledge is power.

If you eat pizza and French fries every day, rapidly gain weight, feel tired and unwell, you probably have the knowledge to identify the problem: unhealthy eating. Knowing this allows you to take the proper steps to fix the issue.

Unlike the above example, many people who are at risk for mental disorders don't understand the symptoms they're experiencing, or how to prevent them in the first place. This is because no one has taken the time to educate them about the potential causes of their problems. This can leave people feeling stuck and powerless.

Mental health literacy can potentially save lives

Emerging research shows that mental health literacy programs in schools can improve knowledge, reduce stigma, and potentially even save lives. These programs can be relatively simple, teaching youth to recognize the symptoms of a mental disorder and how and when to get help, whether that be through self-management methods or knowing when it's time to see a doctor.

So what should we be teaching youth -- and adults -- about mental health care?

Healthy eating and exercise are good for your brain, too

A balanced diet and regular exercise are good for cardiac health, but the endorphins released during exercise can also be good for our mental health, and may play a role in preventing the development of mental disorders.

There is also growing evidence that exercise alone can be an effective treatment for people with mild anxiety or depression. It's a treatment that I routinely "prescribe" to my patients.

It's important to be and stay social

Humans are social animals, and avoiding social activity can be harmful to our mental health. Socializing is an important part of preventing and treating mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, we often see a vicious cycle, where the symptoms of these conditions lead sufferers to withdraw from society and stay home. This, in turn, can end up worsening symptoms.

It's important to prioritize social activity and set social goals, which may include getting out of the house, seeing friends and fostering meaningful relationships. If there's no one to turn to, I often suggest that people join social clubs or other group activities like sports, dance or art classes.

A bit of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness for all

About 10 per cent of people will suffer from clinical depression in their lifetime, but 100 per cent of people will feel stressed out or overwhelmed at one point or another. And that 100 per cent needs to have an action plan in order to deal with the inevitable.

While not everyone needs talk therapy treatment, many of the principles of talk therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, can be useful to everyone when they are in distress.

Talk therapies aim to help people understand their thoughts differently, and challenge ones that may be problematic. We all have thousands of thoughts every day, some firmly grounded in reality. For example, "it's sunny outside." But other thoughts may not be quite right, or are even plain false. Thoughts like "I am a complete failure" or "I'll never be able to get through this" are common examples.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Talk therapy skills help us have a different way of interpreting and experiencing these thoughts. In the case of CBT, we're encouraged to evaluate the evidence for negative thoughts and to arrive at more balanced ways of thinking about a situation. If an A student gets a D on an assignment, she may think "I am a complete failure." CBT would help her evaluate that thought and arrive at something that fits better with the evidence, like "I didn't do as well as I wanted to, but I know that I can succeed if I keep trying."


Mindfulness, another form of talk therapy, helps people navigate negative thoughts in a slightly different way, through Eastern meditative practices that encourage people to stay in the moment, to be curious, and to avoid judgments.

The important point is that basic CBT and mindfulness skills can be learned by almost anyone and can be helpful even if you don't have a mental disorder.

Talk therapy resources

Talk therapy skills can be self-taught by reading books or online resources. A couple of great online resources that I recommend to patients are MoodGym and eCouch.

It's important to know and understand the ways we can care for our mental health. Being more aware can not only help us prevent and self-manage mental disorders, but also encourage people to seek help quicker, and be better prepared and open to getting treatment. Anxiety, depression, and distress in general are all common problems that can get better with the right intervention. Having a basic understanding of our mental health is the first step to getting there.


Want to learn more about mental health care? Attend Sunnybrook's Department of Psychiatry Community Open House in Toronto on May 3, 2017.

Read more about mental health by Sunnybrook experts at

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