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Half of Canadians – 49 per cent to be precise – have “experienced a mental health issue” at some point in their lives, according to a new national survey.

That includes a whopping 63 per cent of millennials, 50 per cent of Gen Xers and 41 per cent of “late boomers”.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Jacques Goulet, president of Sun Life Financial Canada, the company that commissioned the poll.

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“From work-related stress to living with schizophrenia, mental illness crosses all boundaries and touches people at every stage of life,” Sun Life says in a news release.

Mental illness does affect a lot of people, across a broad swath of society. But numbers rarely, if ever, speak for themselves. They need context and unpacking.

Polls like this one are problematic for a host of reasons.

First, there is the imprecision of language. What the heck is a mental-health issue? Is it the same as a mental illness?

The idea that half of Canadians have been diagnosed with a mental illness is highly unlikely, especially that, according the same poll, one-quarter of Canadians have never discussed their “mental health problems” with a health professional.

The Sun Life survey found that 37 per cent of people had, as some point, experienced anxiety and 30 per cent depression.

Self-reported data is notoriously unreliable, especially when we ask people to self-diagnose and doubly so when it involves a sensitive issue such as mental illness.

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Attitudes about mental illness are changing. There is a lot less stigma than there used to be. People are far more willing to seek help.

But, at the same time, we are increasingly leaving people with the impression that having feelings and emotions is somehow problematic.

What the poll tells us, more than anything else, is that we are pathologizing normal emotions. It’s normal to be anxious in certain situations – like driving on a busy highway, or having to give a speech in front of strangers.

It’s normal to be depressed sometimes, such as when a loved one dies or a relationship breaks down. It’s normal to be stressed sometimes, such as when you can’t pay the bills at month’s end or you have to meet a deadline at work.

But none of these things are mental illnesses per se. There can sometimes be a fine line between being anxious and suffering from anxiety, and between sadness and depression.

But a person should only be considered to have an illness when they suffer significant distress or impairment as the result of their symptoms.

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We have to remember too that many “mental health problems” are temporary and self-resolving. Most people are quite resilient.

Increasingly, we encourage people to seek help. That is not a bad thing in itself; in fact, it’s positive.

But not everyone who is sad – or even depressed – needs antidepressants or psychological care or counselling. And those who do need this help rarely get it – or benefit from it – in the long-term.

There is much debate about whether there is more mental illness today. There is no question more people are diagnosed with conditions such as anxiety and depression.

But the diagnostic criteria have changed significantly, sometimes to the point of absurdity. One of the most common diagnoses today is Generalized Anxiety Disorder; almost half the people with GAD are stressed by public speaking. Is that really a mental illness or is it a way of imposing social norms? Or, more cynically, a way to flog drugs?

When we slap labels such as anxiety and depression on people too readily, we can stand in the way of healing. We even risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. There can also be harm caused: Anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants have side effects.

It is also important to make a distinction between mental-health problems, acute mental illness and severe mental illness. About one in five people will suffer from an acute mental illness, such as a mild, moderate or severe depression. But it’s often temporary and treatable.

A small percentage of people – roughly 4 per cent – suffer from severe mental illnesses. Often these are intractable, largely untreatable and ultimately life-threatening.

We do ourselves a grave disservice when we lump everyone into the same basket.

Humans come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and with a wide range of feelings and emotions. We have to be careful not to presume there is a normal and that everyone who deviates has mental-health problems or, worse yet, mental illness.

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