University of Wisconsin–Madison

About Mental Health

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to their community.

Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect an individual’s mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors.

Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. However, a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms affect a person’s ability to function. Factors that can impact employee mental health are countless. Some factors are work duties, social connections, caregiving responsibilities, and societal tensions.

Keep in Mind

  • Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health.
  • Mental illnesses are a wide range of conditions that impact a person’s ability to function in the world.
  • Mental illnesses are medical conditions and like any medical condition, they can be disruptive to a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning.
  • Sometimes, symptoms of mental health concerns are invisible to others and sometimes they show up in common physical symptoms, like a stomachache.
  • Societal inequities mean that some groups are unable to access equitable and affordable mental health treatment services.
  • Societal inequities can also lead to a lack of trust in available mental health treatments, in part due to bad past experiences, low quality care, and culturally inappropriate services.
  • In the best case scenarios, treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with individualized treatment plans.
  • Moreover, among the 48.5 million adults in 2019 who perceived that they ever had a problem with their mental health, 70.7 percent (or 34.0 million people) considered themselves to be in recovery or to have recovered from their mental health issue.
  • While early identification and treatment is ideal, it is never too late to seek mental health care.
  • Stigma erodes confidence that mental health conditions are real, treatable health conditions.

Did you know?

  • Mental illness shows up differently for each individual.
  • Ethnic/racial, sexual, and gender minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes as a result of multiple factors, including cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, inaccessibility of high quality mental health care services, overall lack of awareness about mental health, and discrimination.
  • A mental illness diagnosis does not stop someone from having a fulfilling life.
  • A mental illness is not a sign of weakness.
  • Mental health conditions have insurance coverage like other medical conditions (Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act).
  • Individuals may have job protections when getting support for qualifying mental health reasons.

Mental Health Language in the Workplace

In the workplace, a person’s mental health requires the same privacy and protection as physical health issues.  You should not discuss details of an individual’s mental health status in the workplace. If an employee shares something about their mental health with you, put them in touch with your Divisional Disability Representative (DDR) and make sure the employee is aware of other resources available to support them.

In relation to mental health in the workplace, be aware that the choice of language used to describe a situation or a person’s performance may perpetuate a larger stigma and discrimination towards those with mental illness. This, in turn, can be an additional barrier to those seeking support.

Below are some guidelines from Psychology Today to help you avoid perpetuating stigma and discrimination, as well as how to appropriately navigate discussions that may arise around mental illness. Even with these guidelines, always respect each individual’s preference for how they wish to refer to their own mental health status. And remember, you should not be actively engaging in the discussion of your own or employees’ mental health in the workplace.


  • Describe the behavior, such as “I’m very particular or detail oriented,” or “I get distracted easily.”
  • Use words to describe the behavior, such as reckless, confusing, enraged, or unclear.
  • Say “died by suicide,” or “survived a suicide attempt.”
  • Say “lives with” or “has.”


  • Use mental health terms to explain everyday individual actions or other behavior common to many people, such as “I’m so OCD,” or “that’s my ADHD.”
  • Use insensitive terms (“crazy,” “insane,” “psycho,” “deranged”) to describe someone displaying unusual or violent behaviors, or who may have a mental illness.
  • Say “committed suicide” as though it was a crime. Also, do not say that a suicide attempt was “failed” or “successful.”
  • Use terms that suggest pity, such as “suffering from,” “victim of,” or “afflicted with” when referring to someone.

What are your beliefs around mental health and mental illness?

A person’s background and experiences influence their beliefs about mental health. Mental health stigma is common and often stops people from seeking help. Use the questions below to reflect upon how your background and experiences influence your current beliefs around mental health. These questions are for your personal reflection use only, not for engaging in conversations with your employees or colleagues.

Self-reflection questions:

  • When you think of mental health, what do you think of?
  • When you think of mental illness, what do you think of?
  • Have you or someone you know ever been diagnosed with a mental illness?
  • What messages did you hear growing up (through family, friends, community, media, etc.) about mental health or seeking support for mental health?
  • How does your family/community feel about people who are experiencing a mental health condition?
  • How often does your family/community talk about mental health struggles? Do you ever talk about mental health struggles with friends/family?
  • What control do you think an individual has over their mental health or illness?
  • How comfortable do you feel hearing about or observing someone in distress?
  • It is common for people to have noticed or known someone who is facing or  experiencing a mental health condition, but decide not to offer support. What might stop someone from offering support to someone in distress?
  • What role do you think mental health has in the workplace?
  • What have you witnessed around mental health in the workplace?
  • How does it make you feel to think about your employee disclosing a mental health concern?
  • Do you know where to refer employees if they come to you with mental health concerns?
  • What might contribute to employees’ mental health and/or mental illness?
  • How might mental illness impact people differently (i.e. identity, access, tenure, or positionality)?

If you find it difficult to work through these questions, consider exploring some additional learning opportunities.

Mental Health and the Workplace

When organizations and managers support the mental health of their employees, and when employees receive help for mental illness, those employees see significant positive impacts, including that they will be more productive at work, there will be fewer workplace accidents, and less turnover. Below are some common workplace and personal stressors that impact an employee’s mental health. This is not an all inclusive list. As you review the lists, consider which stressors you directly impact as an employee’s manager.

Common workplace mental health stressors:

  • Uncertainty around change and what it means for employees in the future.
  • Lack of transparency surrounding manager-supervisor conversations and unclear processes related to supervision of employees.
  • Heavy workloads which often lead to burnout (a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity).
  • Unclear work goals and expectations.
  • Feeling unsupported by manager or coworkers.
  • Experiencing hostile and intimidating behavior.
  • Experiencing racism and/or discrimination at or outside of work.
  • Working an inconsistent schedule.
  • Unhealthy workplace cultural practices, such as regular off-campus activities centered around drinking after work.
  • Ambiguous loss or a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding.

Common personal mental health stressors:

  • Substance abuse (at or outside of the workplace).
  • Economic issues, such as working multiple jobs or living paycheck to paycheck.
  • Social issues, such as structural racism, which can marginalize, insult, and/or dehumanize ethnic minorities and, in some cases, lead to racial trauma.
  • Personal relationship challenges or struggles (friend, roommate, partner, kids, family, etc.).
  • Grief or loss of loved one, relationship, or other loss.
  • Family caregiving needs.
  • Employee or employee’s family illness, childbirth, or adoption of a child.

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