Time to Talk about Mental Health

By State Senator Julie Lassa


“Your mind and body are on high alert for no obvious reason.”

“Your head is surrounded by a thick, black, unrelenting fog.”

“You’re frightened and confused and you don’t want to tell other people what’s going on.”

These are the voices of people describing what it’s like to suffer from mental illness.  And they’re not alone.  In Wisconsin, about 183,000 adults suffer serious mental illness every year.   Untold thousands more live with the symptoms of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and psychosis without seeking help.  Tragically, some of them will contribute to the more than 700 suicides that occur in Wisconsin every year.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time when we can all learn more about mental illness and its impact on our lives.  Unfortunately, the stigma often associated with mental illness can prevent us from understanding that it is an illness.  It’s not a weakness or character fault in the individual, and with the right help, many sufferers respond well to treatment.  What’s key is for people to seek help before their illness becomes debilitating and before it can lead to tragedy.

Why do people suffer mental health challenges?  As with many other illnesses, the cause is often biological in nature, such as genetics or imbalances in brain chemistry.  Some individuals face adverse life experiences like trauma that can be difficult to overcome.  The good news is that there are effective forms of treatment for many kinds of mental illness, and that, like other health problems, the best solution is prevention.

Because mental health challenges can be confusing and make people afraid to reach out for help, it’s important that loved ones and friends be aware of some of the warning signs of mental illness.  These can include sleeping too little or too much, avoiding others, having severe mood swings, low energy, numbness or hopelessness, and seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t true. People with mental health challenges may abuse alcohol or drugs to try to cope with their suffering.

If you feel you may be having a mental health challenge, it’s important to talk to someone – your family, friends, a counselor or your physician.  If speaking face to face is too difficult, send a text or an email.  And if someone talks to you about their mental health challenge, it’s important to listen, non-judgmentally and without interrupting.  Take them seriously, and let them know you understand and want to help.  Mental Health America-Wisconsin (www.mhawisconsin.org) has many useful fact sheets that can help you talk to others about mental health problems.

Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent mental illness and keep your mental health strong.  These include good diet and exercise habits, maintaining supportive relationships, avoiding substance abuse, and learning strategies for working with difficult emotions.  Taking positive steps to improve one’s material well-being can also reduce stress and anxiety. 

As a society, we need to accept that mental health is an important public health issue.  We need to recognize the social costs of mental health problems, and do more to measure and understand the factors that contribute to mental well-being.  Above all, we need to root out the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, and create a safe atmosphere for those who seek help.

A good way to learn more about mental health is to visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services at www.dhs.wisconsin.gov.  Selecting the “Mental Health – Illnesses and Conditions” page will lead you to many valuable links where you can find information on the symptoms and treatments of mental illnesses and how to promote better mental health.