What is mental health?

Mental health is the combination of psychological and emotional well-being and the presence of mental health disorder(s). It’s an essential dimension of your overall health, enabling you to fulfill yourself, overcome life’s normal stresses, and carry out your work and daily activities.

A mental health disorder is a condition defined by changes in a person’s thinking, mood or behavior, which disrupt functioning and cause distress.

According to the two-continuum model shown in the image below, mental health and mental health disorders belong to distinct continuums.

  • You can live with a mental health problem and still have optimal mental health.
  • Conversely, you can go through a difficult situation, even a crisis, without having a mental health problem.
This image shows the 2-continuum model of mental health. Two axes intersect to represent 4 dials.  At each end of the continuum, the first axis signifies the absence or presence of a mental health disorder, while the second axis indicates the state of well-being, from optimal health to crisis. In each dial, a character is represented to indicate how he or she feels, depending on whether or not he or she has a mental health disorder, or whether he or she is in a state of mental health or in crisis.

Can my mental health vary over time?

Yes! Mental health is fluid, which means it changes throughout life as circumstances and experiences change. Many stressful situations and events over which you have little or no control will inevitably arise during your studies. Sometimes, the stress caused by these events will be temporary and even useful in mobilizing the energy you need to adapt to the situation. Other times, it may go on and on in spite of you, and if the situation persists or repeats itself, that’s when your mental health can be affected. Humans simply aren’t built for intense, continuous stress. It’s therefore important to be aware of these variations, which can be normal and temporary, but which sometimes require us to overcome our fear or shame and dare to seek help.

How about a balanced approach to mental health?

As there is more than one way to define mental health, we can also exclude the fact of having or not a mental health disorder . This is what the Medicine Wheel, a symbol of native culture, proposes. Also known as the circle of life, this figure signifies life and health, and is often used to maintain or restore a state of well-being and harmony.

According to this vision, the different spheres of life are interrelated, and the aim is to maintain a balance between them. When you’re not well, or when there’s a surplus or lack in one sphere, you’re encouraged to find solutions both within yourself and in the environment, in order to regain balance.


  • How can I ensure my physical well-being?
  • What goals can I set myself to improve my physical health?


  • What types of thoughts are circulating in my head: about myself? My loved ones? My community? My culture?
  • What can I do to improve my self-esteem?


  • Do I question the meaning and purpose of my life? If so, how?
  • Do I believe in a Supreme Being? How and why?
  • What can I do to ensure my spiritual health?


  • What can I do to improve my emotional well-being?
  • What goals should I set myself to improve my interpersonal relationships, and what should I do to achieve them?

Mental health explained by Francis Legendre

In this video, Francis Legendre explains mental health with a touch of humor. Why not!

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Statistics on student mental health

  • 58% of university students experience high levels of psychological distress (Union étudiante du Québec, 2019)
  • 19% of university students would have depressive symptoms severe enough to require medical or psychological support (Union étudiante du Québec, 2019).
  • Three times more students have suicidal thoughts than the general population and twice more have attempted suicide (Union étudiante du Québec, 2019).
  • The rate of suicidal ideation and psychological distress recorded among the student population on the Université de Montréal campus is higher than the average for the Quebec population of the same age (Fédération des associations étudiantes du campus de l’Université de Montréal, 2016).
  • 35% of CEGEP students surveyed felt anxious at all times and 18% had suicidal thoughts (Gosselin and Ducharme, 2017).
  • Approximately 1 in 3 CEGEP students show signs consistent with a depressive disorder (Gallais et al, 2022).
  • 64% of college students saw their psychological health deteriorate during the pandemic crisis (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, 2021).


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Centre d’études sur le stress humain (2019) Saveurs du stress chronique.

ÉCOBES (2022) Adaptation psychologique et adaptation aux études à distance des étudiants collégiaux face à la crise de la COVID-19.

Fédération des associations étudiantes du campus de l’Université de Montréal (2016) Enquête sur la santé psychologique étudiante .

Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (2021) Derrière ton écran.

Gosselin, M-A. et Ducharme, R. (2017) Détresse et anxiété chez les étudiants du collégial et recours aux services d’aide socioaffectifs .

Gouvernement du Québec (2022) À propos des troubles mentaux.

Hervieux N. et Paquette, M-N. (2017) Le mieux-être mentale des Premières Nations et le concept du rétablissement en santé mentale : croiser les savoirs. Présentation au colloque de l’Association québécoise pour la réadaptation psychosociale.

Institut de la statistique du Québec (2020) Le concept de santé mentale positive, un aperçu.

Keyes, L.M. (2002) The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life.

Loiselle, M. et McKenzie, L. (2009). La roue du bien-être: une contribution autochtone au travail social. Revue Interventions, 131, pp. 183-193.

Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur (2021) Plan d’action sur la santé mentale étudiante en enseignement supérieur 2021-2026.

Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec. Les facteurs de protection chez les Premières Nations et les Inuit

Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtone et du Québec (2017) Mino Madji8in : Pour la bientraitance et le respect de nos Aînés autochtones en milieu urbain.

Union étudiante du Québec (2019) Enquête Sous ta façade.


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Illustrations: Mario Fontaine

Contribution to the article: Isabelle Queval, psychologist

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