How to talk to family about mental health

By Kai Conibear,
updated on Jun 2, 2020

How to talk to family about mental health

Trying to explain your illness to those closest to you can be an intimidating challenge, so here’s some expert advice to help you get the conversation started…

However much we love them, talking to family about our mental health can be hard work. It can be daunting to start a conversation about it, and even tougher to help them understand.

I was lucky. My family was there for me when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, even though my mum worked with children with mental illness, and my dad was a social worker, it still took them a long time to deal with the diagnosis. If your family has no experience of mental illness, it can feel like a monumental task to explain any of it.

Counsellor and psychotherapist Lucy Fuller says: “Whatever form mental illness takes, it is still an illness. If you had a heart problem, you would tell your family about it, how it affects you, and what they can do to help you while you are not well. It sometimes helps to think about mental health issues in the same way.

“Close family will always have a tendency to want you to be better as soon as possible, and often their intentions – although coming from a good and caring place – are not all that helpful.”

Because they can’t see what’s wrong, family members might have a harder time understanding. I’ve found using a description or a metaphor works. I’ve explained bipolar disorder as a rollercoaster, or like waves in the ocean. Find a description that works for you. If they can picture something, it can help your family wrap their heads around the idea.

Break it down into chunks. For instance, give examples of past behaviour and tell them: “This was an episode of depression.”

Really stress how these symptoms have a profound effect on you. It will be hard work, and emotional, to explain everything, and will leave you feeling vulnerable. It’s important to tell loved ones how this makes you feel. Explain what it isn’t – for example, depression is more than just feeling low or fed up.

Lucy Fuller explains how family can support you. “They need to know from you that acknowledging your difficulties, and just being there for you, is important. They don’t need to try to fix you – that will come with time. They just need to be there for you, and show their love and support by accepting your mental state, and being able to be alongside you in your difficulties.”

If they feel the need to fix the problem, involve them. They’ll feel calmer about you being unwell, and will feel like they’re doing their bit to help. They’ll learn more about the condition, and if they feel partly responsible for you being unwell, it can help them deal with those feelings.

Take them along to see your doctor or psychiatrist. I regularly take someone from my family to appointments with me. It helps me, too. Family often notice something isn’t quite right with my behaviour before I even realise it. If I’m very ill, having someone else in the appointment helps because you can’t always process all the information you’re being given.

Real family are the people who support you, look out for you, and accept you regardless of what you’re going through

Take them to support groups, or therapy sessions, if you can. Share what you’ve learnt, and update them on how you’re managing. If they care about you, all your family want to hear is how they can help. Make a list of what they can do practically to help you. Give them information on who to call and what to do if you become ill. Explaining what your treatment involves can help alleviate their worries.

What I’ve found is that families, especially parents, are desperate to fix you. They want to stop you from feeling the way you do. They want an answer as to how you can be better again. And they want to know why you’re ill. And the problem with these questions is they’re either messy answers, or there isn’t one. I had to tell my parents that they can’t fix me, but they can help. My parents fretted for years that they’d done something wrong, that had caused me to be this way. I’ve had to reassure them that it’s OK, they didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s incredibly difficult to admit to family that something that happened to you when you were younger has contributed to you being unwell. Depending on your situation, it might not be possible to be completely truthful. It could cause more harm than good. You really have to judge the situation and do what you think is best. Talk it through with a therapist, or someone you trust.

Lucy Fuller says: “If they still don’t get it, point them in the direction of some good literature, podcasts, or TV programs where they can learn more about mental health.”

What if they aren’t supportive?

This does happen, and can be heartbreaking when a close family member just doesn’t get it. It’s horrible to feel that someone in your family doesn’t – or isn’t willing to – understand. It can happen for a number of reasons. They might feel responsible, or they might not know how to talk to you, so push you away. They might have old fashioned beliefs.

Sometimes you can work with family to help them understand. If they’re receptive, you can try to educate them. Share literature and links to websites you think they’ll find useful. If you go to a support group, invite them along. It will help them learn more about mental illness, and see you’re not the only one with the condition.

Unfortunately, sometimes none of these will work. It’s up to you what you then do. They might need more time to come around to the idea. Or maybe you know they will never accept it. This can be heart-wrenching, so it’s important to lean on other people in your life. When we feel rejected or alone, the strain can make us very ill.

It sounds a bit cheesy, but you can make your own family. Real family are the people who support you, look out for you, and accept you regardless of what you’re going through. You don’t have to be related, or brought up by them. You might not find your real family until you’re an adult. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and you can make yours look any way you want.

If you need support

By Kai Conibear

Kai Conibear is a writer and mental health advocate. His first book, ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, about bipolar disorder, is out now.'

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