Question: What Does “Mental Health” and “Substance Use” really mean??


Mental health refers to a general sense of well-being, which includes feeling well-balanced in all areas of your life (work/school, home, friends/relationships, hobbies). How you think, feel, behave, and express yourself all can impact on and reflect your level of mental health. When you are mentally healthy, you generally feel good, are able to perform to the best of your abilities, can complete your day to day responsibilities, and can cope with the stress that arises in your daily life. Mental health is just as important as your physical health—like your physical health, your mental health can fluctuate at times and you need to pay attention to and take care of what is going on not only in your body, but also, what is going on ‘in your head’.


A mental health problem occurs when a person’s thoughts, feelings and/or behaviours have started to get in the way of their day to day functioning and has caused problems at home, school, work, or in their relationships with others. These problems usually cause the person to feel upset or distressed or worried. A mental health disorder is a condition which is typically diagnosed by a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, and is identified only when a specific group of symptoms, combined with a disruption of normal functioning, is occurring for the person. There are a variety of mental health disorders, which include: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, and more.  A mental health disorder is similar to a medical condition in that it often requires treatment, usually in the form of counselling and/or medication, to get better. A mental health disorder is a real and serious condition, just like a medical illness, and is not the person’s fault.  So, it is not something to be ashamed of and is not something that a person can just get over without help and support.


Substance use refers to the use of any type of medication, drug or alcohol, legal or illegal, for the purpose of altering a person’s physical, behavioural, or emotional state (e.g. to get “high”, drunk, or feel relaxed/happy;  to relieve stress/anxiety; to numb physical or emotional pain). A person can use substances occasionally (e.g. socially), or even on a regular, but limited basis (e.g. one glass of wine with each dinner), and not be abusing or addicted to those substances.


Substance abuse refers to when a person uses medication, drugs or alcohol in an inappropriate manner (i.e. in quantities that exceed the typical or prescribed amount). This use leads to reckless or neglectful behaviours (e.g. driving under the influence or not taking care of their responsibilities) and negative consequences in their life (e.g. financial problems, problems at school or work, and problems with family, friends and relationships).


Addiction occurs when a person demonstrates or experiences a physical or emotional need to use substance(s) just to feel “normal” or able to function (i.e. they no longer experience the same kind of ‘high’ due to having developed a tolerance) and continue to use the substance(s) despite negative consequences occurring in their life. When a person is addicted, they typically are not completing many of their day to day responsibilities and focus most or all of their time and energy on getting and using the substance. A person who is addicted will use substance(s) in excessive or dangerous amounts, experience a sense of withdrawal when they are not using, and feel unable to stop using even though they may have tried to quit many times.