Talking with friends and family about your mental illness can be difficult; and stigma, unfamiliarity and frequent misunderstanding about mental illness can add to the challenge.
Deciding who to talk to is a personal decision—some people may be comfortable sharing with many people, others only a few close family members. Even when people are well-meaning, they may not react the way you hope and not everyone will be understanding or open to discussion.
Why talk about your mental health challenges? Just talking about your situation and illness to someone understanding can reduce your stress and help you feel better. It can also help those close to you understand better and be prepared to provide the support you need, including knowing how to respond in specific situations. Talking to family members and friends may help relieve their concerns about you.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests carefully considering the pros and cons of discussing your mental illness.
A few suggestions and tips on getting started:
- Start with talking to people who you know will be more understanding and supportive—someone you respect and who respects you and is willing to listen and honor your confidentiality.
- Consider the timing – is this a good time for the person to talk or are they busy or preoccupied?
- Plan and practice what you are going to say. Decide what you want to tell—you don’t have to share everything.
- Express your needs — suggest specific ways the person can help and support you.
- Explain about situations that may trigger problems.
- Know the facts and be prepared to help educate with general information about mental illness or information specific to your situation.
- Be prepared for a variety of responses and keep in mind that it may take some time for people to understand and deal with their own feelings about what you are sharing with them.
- Set boundaries – be clear about when you want advice and when you want someone to listen.
- Make sure to share the good things – such as new things you have learned, examples of wellness and treatment working, people who have been supportive.
(Sources: NAMI, Pathstone Mental Health)
When talking with children about mental illness
Talking with children about yourself or a family member with mental illness may be even more difficult, but equally important. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers a few suggestions:
- Communicate in a straightforward manner using words and concepts appropriate to the child’s age.
- Have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable.
- Ask about what the child understands and about concerns; allow the child to express thoughts and feelings.
- Watch the child’s reaction during the discussion and slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset.
- Consider relating mental illness to a familiar physical illness. For example, if appropriate, you could relate the need for ongoing mental health care to the ongoing need for management and treatment of diabetes.
Mental health blogger Natasha Tracy, who has written about talking to family members about having bipolar disorder, notes that: “Expressing what you need from a person can actually help them come to terms with your mental illness because it makes them feel like they can do something specific to help and support you. People who love you will want to do that.”