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Mental Health: Healthy Living

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not the same things. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being.

It is important to remember that a person’s mental health can change over time, depending on many factors. When the demands placed on a person exceed their resources and coping abilities, their mental health could be impacted. For example, if someone is working long hours, caring for an ill relative, or experiencing economic hardship they may experience poor mental health.

How can you stay mentally healthy?

Positive mental health allows people to:

  • Realize their full potential.
  • Cope with the stresses of life.
  • Work productively.
  • Make meaningful contributions to their communities.

Ways to maintain positive mental health include:

  • Getting professional help if you need it.
  • Connecting with others.
  • Staying positive.
  • Getting physically active.
  • Helping others.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Developing coping skills.

When should you talk about mental health?

It is time to talk about you mental health when:

  • You just don't "feel right" and aren't sure why.
  • Your thoughts or things you do just don't seem to be the way other people think or behave.
  • Your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are starting to affect your life at home, work/school, or with family and friends in a bad way.
  • You've had some of the signs and symptoms below for more than a week:
    • Feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or worthless.
    • Sensitivity to sound, sight, smell, or touch.
    • Feeling overly worried.
    • Not being able to perform at work/school.
    • Feeling like your brain is playing tricks on you and hearing knocking or scratching sounds or your name being called.
    • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy or withdrawal from others.
    • Changes in sleep patterns or energy levels.
    • Irritability or restlessness.
    • Problems with concentration, memory, or thinking.
    • Loss of appetite or overeating.

Remember, it’s okay to talk about your mental health. Many people have experienced mental health highs and lows.

Opening up about your mental health?

Start the conversation when there is an open window of time to have an in-depth discussion. Plan to set aside at least 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Start with a text message if a face-to-face talk is too intimidating. The text message could be as simple as: “I have some important things on my mind and need to make time to talk to you about them.”
  • Make a list of how you feel or things you want to speak about.
  • Find information online that might help you explain what you’re going through. Print this information and bring it with you when you’re ready to talk.
Speaking with a friend or loved one?

Talking about mental health can be difficult and awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. Nor do you need to be an expert to engage in conversations about mental health. Just a few small words – like asking someone how they’re feeling – can make a huge difference. Whether someone is ready to have that conversation with you or not, most people will appreciate your care and support in trying to start the conversation in the first place.

If you’re not exactly sure where to begin, here are a few helpful conversation starters to break the ice around mental health:

“Are you okay?” Ask the question and mean it. Show you are listening by sitting alongside the person, maintaining an open body position and maintaining comfortable eye contact.

“Are you thinking about suicide?” If you are concerned that someone is considering suicide, ask the question directly. Asking a person if they have been thinking about suicide or have made plans will not increase the risk that they will complete suicide.

“I’ve noticed that…” Open the conversation by explaining behavior changes you have noticed. For example, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been showing up to work late a lot lately.” Then, express genuine concern.

“Do you want to take a walk?” Engaging a friend, family member, or loved one you are concerned about in a health activity like taking a walk together can be a great way to start a conversation. Doing an activity while you talk can take some of the nerves and discomfort out of the conversation.

“How are you, really?” Sometimes when someone says they’re fine, they’re not. Know the warning signs to look for so you can know when to offer extra support.

When it comes to mental health, what we say—and how we listen—matters.

Listen attentively

What is the person telling you? What’s their body language tell you? Think back to a time you truly felt like someone was listening to you, and how you felt. Emulate that.

Listen well so you can absorb what they’re saying, and refer back to something they said later on. This not only shows you’re listening, but that you care about the person and what they’ve shared with you.

Make sure to put away all distractions (phone, games, etc.) and face the person you’re speaking with. Look at them as they talk to you. Nod your head in understanding when appropriate, and gently inquire about something they brought up.

Ask open-ended questions

Make sure the conversation is not full of questions the other person can answer with a simple yes or no. Instead, open up a space for understanding by asking open-ended questions like:

  • How have you been feeling lately?
  • What have you been doing to cope?
  • What do you want to do about that?

You can also express your concern and encourage the person to talk about what’s going on by offering caring statements like: "You seem to be a bit quiet these days. What’s been on your mind?"

Don't assume or make judgments

Opening up and reaching out for help can be difficult. If you make assumptions and judgments in response, it can make it even harder for people to express themselves.

Refrain from assuming how a person feels, what they need, or what’s going on with them. Instead, ask gently for clarification when you need some.

If your friend or loved one tells you things that make you uneasy, or that you might not agree with, such as how they’ve been coping with their feelings, or negative perceptions they have of themselves, do your best to set aside all judgment.

Expressing warm-hearted concern and offering support should always be the aim.

Find a way to help or get help

Sometimes, you might be able to directly help the person you’re concerned about. Maybe all they needed was to vent, or have someone to talk to and help sort out their feelings. For some people, it might be helpful to send them positive text messages throughout the week, whenever you get the chance.

But there are some cases in which the ways you can help are limited. If your friend is suicidal, for example, then it’s time to get help from those more equipped to handle the situation at hand.

Ask your friend or loved one if they want to get help, and offer them the resources to do so. Assure them there’s nothing wrong with getting the help they need and that by doing so, they’ve taken the first step to feeling better. Sometimes, just hearing this will help lift some weight off of how they’re feeling.

Offering to take your friend loved one to these helpful spaces, or to find the proper assistance, can go a long way.

Be connected, stronger, and thriving

Join the Resilient Wisconsin campaign. The mission of Resilient Wisconsin is to give everyone in our state the opportunity to live their best lives. Learn how to build resilience.

Be a safe person

Join the Safe Person campaign. Let others know that you want to offer a non-judgmental listening ear and effective support when able. Safe Person campaign members commit to uphold seven promises. Learn the seven promises and get a decal to show your commitment.

Mental health concerns are common and treatable. Help is available. Call 211 to learn about services and supports in your community. Call 911 if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

Last revised April 12, 2024