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Anxiety is on a spectrum, according to Victoria expert, as service lag behind

Over five million Canadians experience some form of mental health disorder
Anxiety is on a spectrum, according to Paweena Sukhawathanakul, assistant professor in the psychology department at UVic. (UVic/Photo supplied)

Conversations around mental health and anxiety are both complex and full of stigma, according to a University of Victoria.

It is one of the reasons why having an exact definition of anxiety can be a tricky thing, as it can affect people in different ways, said Paweena Sukhawathanakul, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at UVic.

“Anxiety can’t be attributed to a single cause, but to a multitude of different risk factors, and also can be soothed by lots of protective positive factors,” she said.

In September 2023, Statistics Canada said in a new report that around five million Canadians would experience some form of mental health disorder, and those aged between 15 to 24 were at the most risk.

Anxiety can propel people to great things. It may help you finish your work, work hard at the gym or meet a deadline. Not all of it is bad, said Sukhawathanakul.

“It’s not that individuals are devoid of fear or anxiety,” she said. “It is that you know you can adapt and overcome.”

It is when the distress and fear become too much, disrupt someone’s ability to function daily and become socially withdrawn. It might be affecting someone in a relationship or stopping people from having a relationship.

Sukhawathanakul said anxiety can be seen in school children who might want to avoid going to school and their attempts at avoiding certain people in their lives.

Anxiety is on a spectrum, said Sukhawathanakul. There is not just one type of anxiety. It includes general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, agoraphobia, social anxiety, perfectionism and specific phobias.

Sukhawathanakul’s research is mainly around anxiety in children and adolescents and that children whose families have had experience with an anxiety disorder will be more likely to encounter problems with anxiety.

“The likelihood of you experiencing symptoms related to anxiety or depression is higher than someone who might not have a genetic vulnerability.”

Your physical health will also impact your mental health because trauma most often manifests physically and can lead to poor outcomes, she said.

“It’s going to compromise your cardiovascular health. It will also affect your immune function. It’s all intertwined.”

Early intervention can be the key to how a person can overcome their anxieties, she said. Still, the services have not kept up with the demand, she said, and there needs to be a more community-minded approach to tackling this ever-growing problem.

“It’s making sure that everyone’s needs get met and that we create a culture and a climate of promoting mental health,” she said.

According to the report from Statistics Canada, close to 50 per cent of people who experience a mental disorder do not receive treatment.

Those who come from wealthier families often have better access to mental health treatment as quite often they can afford to pay the out-of-pocket expenses, said Sukhawathanakul.

It is difficult for those in rural communities or children who come from low-income families to access the same services and might have to rely on family to cope with their mental health disorder, she said.

“Having positive social support networks, having family and friends who you can rely upon for that support is good,” she said. “But also access to mental health professionals that are part of the network.”

If you know you or anyone who is struggling, please get in touch with one of the groups below:

  • 1800SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • 310Mental Health Support (310-6789)
  • Crisis Centre of BC 1-866-661-3311
  • KUU-US Youth Crisis Line at 250-723-2040

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