A Therapist’s Guide to Talking to Friends and Family About Mental Health

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Seeking mental health services isn’t easy. It might be even more difficult to open up to your friends and family about how you’ve been struggling to manage your mental health. Starting the conversation, however, has a lot of potential benefits — most notably increased family support and reassurance. When you’re deep in anxiety or depression, this extra support could make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, societal stigmas have made it difficult for those living with mental health concerns to receive support. In an ideal world, we would all be proactive in looking out for one another. Even well-intentioned family members or friends don’t take the time to check in, sometimes due to ignorance around mental health topics, other times because they’re preoccupied with their own concerns.

But, if you’re willing to begin the conversation with your loved ones about your struggles then this post might help them better understand and support you.

Create An Environment That Feels Good For You

Opening up isn’t easy. If you make the decision to talk with your friends or family about how you’ve been dealing with mental health issues, then you want to do it in a setting that feels as comfortable as possible for you. This varies from person to person. However, there are some common elements to consider as you share your challenges:

Location

Make sure the location you choose is accessible, both to you and whoever you decide to open up to. It already requires a lot of work to open up about mental health issues, you don’t want to expend extra energy to get to a location that feels cumbersome.

You may also want to think about the visual space and noise level of the environment you plan to be in. Considering these factors ahead of time might help limit disruptions or unnecessary distractions.

Privacy

Also consider how private you want this discussion to be. For some, the space should be extremely controlled and quiet, meaning somewhere in a home may be most convenient.

For others who may be more concerned about negative responses from loved ones, you might consider a place that’s a bit more public. In the latter case, you may want to consider a quiet bench in a nearby park or a picnic area close-by.

Time

Be sure to set aside enough time in the environment for you to open up, as well as potentially allow your family remember to respond and ask questions. If you have limited time in whatever location you choose, this will add pressure and stress to the conversation.

The next big question is what do you say?

How to Speak About Mental Health Issues

I think it’s always helpful to consider your audience no matter what you’re talking about.

In this case you will be opening up to family about something really personal. Before you take the step to open up, you may want to gauge how much they already know about mental health issues and what their perspectives are on mental health and treatment.

When they see mental illness discussed on TV how do they respond? Are they generally very compassionate people or do they tend to be highly critical? Might they have known someone else who has lived with a mental illness before?

All of these factors will contribute to how they may respond to your disclosure. Thinking this through ahead of time will help you feel more emotionally prepared. With that, keep in mind that they may not have the same understanding and language for mental health issues as you do relating to emotional health.

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Speak from Your Personal “I”

It’s scary taking a risk to open yourself up to others, there’s no doubt about that. But doing so could open you up to receiving a lot more support from the people around you. If you take your time and speak from your direct, lived experience using “I” statements, you will convey the importance of the conversation.

If you speak in vague terms, your conversation partner might not fully realize how you have been dealing with mental health issues, and in turn, may not be able to provide the proper support moving forward.

Be As Specific as You Can About Impact

Along with those “I” focused statements, I think it is important to talk about the impact of your mental health issues on your life in very concrete terms.

As a therapist, I find that most people have a lot of misconceptions about mental health issues. As such, it’s helpful to be very direct and clear about the impact your concerns have on your life. I think this directness helps remove others’ impulse (someone who may be less knowledgeable) to speak about mental health in cliched terms or by minimizing your suggestions.

For instance, “I always feel tired” could become “I can sleep 6 hours per night, or 12, and I still find it physically difficult to move my body in the morning.”

For anxiety symptoms one might normally say “I always just kind of feel nervous or uneasy.” More specifically, you can phrase this as: “When I’m sitting down to do work, I can never focus enough to complete a task, because I’m always thinking of how I’m failing at three other projects.”

These statements can make your concerns tangible for other folks and help them better focus on supporting you in a way that works best for you.

Know Your “Ask” Beforehand

Sometimes it’s hard to know what your “ask” is before you get to the conversation, but taking some time beforehand to consider your objective is helpful in getting the support you need.

Your “ask” is the thing you would like most from the person that you’re opening up to. Would you like for them to provide more emotional support? Simply listen to you talk without interruption or making suggestions? Your ask might be as simple as them helping you make copayments for your therapy or medication. The possibilities are endless.

Having an idea of what you want to walk away from the conversation with gives you structure and direction, which can be grounding and therapeutic.

Creating an Authentic, Vulnerable Culture Helps us All

Opening up about your struggles in maintaining your mental health is not an easy thing to do. We all have a lot of work to do in continuing to create a culture that values authenticity and vulnerability over unwavering strength and grit. It’s OK to need help and to ask for it.

I hope these tips help you in your journey. You may also want to consider working with a therapist to help flesh out these important conversations with loved ones.

 

Published by

Jor-El Caraballo

Talkspace Therapist