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Column: Mental health traffic lights (or, an easy way to answer 'how are you?')

Living with a mental illness means you sometimes lose your perspective and might not recognise the point at which you need help. To track this, I use a traffic light system, writes Fiona Kennedy.

Fiona Kennedy

Fiona Kennedy blogs regularly about her experiences of living with clinical depression. Here, she explains her personal ‘traffic light’ system, which helps her to assess how she’s feeling and ask for help if necessary …

THE IDEA FOR making the ‘traffic light’ system came to me from a reader of my blog, it was something she had come up with as a means of judging how she was doing and whether or not intervention was needed. I adapted it for myself, and have found myself more than once needing to refer back to it.

The basic idea is that ideally I’d be green all the time, but I’m not sure that anyone could be, never mind someone living with a mental illness. So, while I recognise that green is my ideal, I’m often yellow. When I’m yellow, I need to be more mindful of what I’m doing to look after myself, and the direction my thought processes are taking. For example, today, as I’m writing this, I’m aware that I’m pretty yellow, verging on orange, and I know that I need to take action to remedy this before it gets any worse.

For me, the things that really work are peace and quiet, walking with my dogs, running, yoga, or hooking up with a friend for a chat. I should also point out that while I know these things help, the more yellow I get, the harder they become, which is why I really need to be aware of how I’m doing all the time.

So without further ado, here it is, my very own traffic light system.


  • Calm, mindful, controlled – at peace with myself;
  • Able to focus;
  • Able to multitask without feeling pressured or frantic;
  • Happy, lots of energy (assuming kids co-operate and let me sleep);
  • Clear head;
  • Feeling optimistic about the future, trusting myself to make decisions;
  • Motivated, both at work and at home;
  • Want to look after myself – eat well, exercise. Cooking isn’t a chore;
  • Looking forward to family time instead of panicking about how I’ll fill the weekend;
  • More open;
  • Softer – hubby finds me easy to be around, I handle the kids much better;
  • Want to see friends;
  • Know that I need medication and counselling, that neither is causing a problem.


  • Less energy;
  • Mind races;
  • Decisions need to be made now, this very minute!
  • More easily frustrated if the house is messy, kids act up;
  • Easily distracted;
  • Anxious;
  • Waspy, irritable;
  • Want more time alone;
  • Start to withdraw from friends;
  • Sleep is less restful;
  • Less inclined to eat well or exercise;
  • Cooking becomes a chore;
  • Start to feel under pressure for time;
  • My inner critic puts in the odd appearance;
  • Feel guilty for all of the above.


  • Things are starting to get out of control;
  • There’s not enough time for everything so I get stuck and can’t do anything;
  • Overwhelmed easily;
  • Anxious;
  • I’m f.i.n.e.;
  • Find it hard to sit still;
  • Concentration shot to bits;
  • Need to have order around me;
  • Irritated by noise – kids, TV, dogs barking, washing machine … all too much (particularly if these are all happening at the same time);
  • Very busy head, hard to control where thoughts go. Generally difficult to pick out what the thoughts are, just lots at the same time;
  • Very forgetful;
  • Tired;
  • Very irritable and snappy, on a short fuse;
  • At some level I’m aware I need to slow down and try and turn this around, but it’s getting increasingly hard to do it;
  • Motivation for anything very low;
  • Losing perspective;
  • Work is a struggle;
  • Hard to sleep;
  • Inner critic is pretty shouty now;
  • Meds aren’t working;
  • Over-reliant on therapist.

Once I get to orange I’m in very dangerous territory and unless I manage myself really carefully (or more to the point at this stage, hubby, friends, therapist help me manage) I cross over into red. Red is bad, very, very bad.


  • Inner critic is the only thing I can hear;
  • Overwhelmed by everyday tasks;
  • I want to run away, I feel trapped;
  • Impatient. Everything needs to happen now, right now, this very minute!
  • Mood can be anything from numb to blind rage to extremely low;
  • Crying, shouting, angry, picking fights;
  • Perspective is gone;
  • Motivation is gone;
  • I blame hubby for perceived problems;
  • Black-and-white thinking: I’m always like this, it’s never going to go away, we’re always fighting;
  • Urges to self harm, suicidal thoughts;
  • Completely withdrawn from everyone – hubby, kids, family, friends. I just want to be left alone;
  • If left alone, I’ll sit and stare at nothing for hours;
  • Want to stop seeing therapist while at the same time desperately want to talk to her;
  • Want to stop taking meds;
  • Hospital/

So there you have it. For me, this has been an extremely useful tool, because it allows me to see very quickly when things are getting out of hand, something I have tended not to notice until it’s too late in the past. While these examples are specific to me, they could be easily adapted for anyone who is struggling with their mental health. Feel free to make it your own!

Fiona Kennedy is a 30(ish) year old, happily married, mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. She has two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. Oh, and clinical depression. She blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScattered

Fiona is an Ambassador for See Change – a national movement to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time’. For more info on See Change see: www.seechange.ie

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