Mental Illness

5 Tips for Talking to Your Family About Your Mental Illness

By Caitlin B. 

Anyone who has struggled with mental illness knows how difficult it can be when your loved ones don’t seem to understand what you’re going through. Sometimes, our friends and family want to support us but they don’t know enough about mental illness to offer the right responses. In some cases, our loved ones may be ignorant about mental health issues and may say things that are hurtful or damaging.

As painful as this can be, our loved ones often mean well. They may be trying to do what they think is best for us. But they might not know how to offer the help we need.

Speaking honestly with your friends and family about your journey with mental illness can be challenging. But your loved ones can’t help you unless they know what you need. If you have people in your life who are not well-informed about what it’s like to live with mental illness, talking openly about your experiences can help enlighten them.

Here are five ways you can open a productive discussion about your mental illness with the people you care about. 

Share what your mental illness feels like

Talking about your symptoms and the way your mental illness affects your everyday life can be scary. It demands a lot of emotional vulnerability. But if you have a kind and supportive friend or family who you feel you can trust, sharing the details of your symptoms may allow them valuable insight into your experiences.

It can be difficult for someone who has never struggled with mental illness to understand what it’s like. Most of us have heard at least a few thoughtless comments suggesting that people with mental illness just need to “toughen up” or “push themselves harder”. It’s also common to hear people claim that serious mental illness can be cured by simple lifestyle changes. Many of the people who make these comments are not trying to be deliberately cruel. They just don’t understand how serious mental illness can be.

When I started describing the details of my symptoms to friends and family members, they were amazed to discover how debilitating my mental illness can be. They had no idea that mental illness can cause not only emotional symptoms but can also cause everything from physical pain to fatigue. Once they understood how physically and psychologically intense the symptoms of my mental illness can be, they no longer wondered why I couldn’t just “shake myself out it”.

You may not feel comfortable having such intensely personal discussion with everyone you know. But if you can confide in a few trusted friends or family members, they may be better able to understand what you’re experiencing and how they can help you.

Tell them what you need

Sometimes knowing what we need is tough! Mental illness can be confusing and overwhelming, even for those of us who have been in treatment for many years. But if you know what you loved ones can do to help you, make sure you ask them…even if it’s embarrassing!

If your social anxiety is flaring up and you’d like a friend to accompany you to the mall to return a pair of jeans, ask! If you’re struggling with mood swings and need some extra patience from your spouse for the next couple of days, ask! If you’re going through a rough period with your depression and it would be helpful for a family member to bring over a meal, ask!

Often our loved ones want desperately to help us but don’t know what we need. They may be so eager to do something for us that they wind up offering help we don’t need or giving advice that’s frustrating or counterproductive. If your friends and family want to help, tell them what they can do for you. If they’re saying or doing something that’s making things worse, politely ask them to stop. Offer suggestions and tell them what they can do that would be more helpful or empowering. 

Put them in touch with the right resources

Today, there are plenty of informational resources available for people with mental illness. If you have a friend or family member who doesn’t know much about mental health issues, try to find a few blogs, books, or other resources to recommend. Offer some suggestions for recommended reading and ask them to take a look at these resources when they have the time. You can even suggest that the two of you check out the resource together and discuss what you’ve learned!

If you need help finding sources of quality information, ask your doctor, therapist, or support group. You can also try searching the internet for reputable websites or books that explain your particular mental health condition. Share the links with your loved ones and let them know that you’ve found a good resource for them check out.

My loved ones have been great about educating themselves on mental illness topics. However, they have sometimes needed some direction to make sure they’re finding helpful and accurate information. They appreciate it when I suggest a helpful book or website.

Becoming better informed about mental illness has helped my family and friends in many ways. Today, they are able to understand what I’m going through and offer constructive support. In some cases, getting educated about mental illness has even helped my loved ones realize that they might suffer from an undiagnosed condition of their own! Learning more about mental illness has empowered them to take better care of their own mental health.

Consider sharing treatment details

Getting treatment for mental illness is a complex and highly personal experience. If you’re not comfortable sharing the details of your treatment strategy with anyone other than your medical team, that’s okay. But it can sometimes be a good idea to keep a few trusted individuals in the loop. You may want to make sure your partner or roommate knows what medications you are taking, in the event of a medical emergency. If you’re starting a new medication, it can be helpful to share the news with someone you trust so they can help keep an eye on you.

While medication can be enormously helpful for many people, it can also sometimes cause side effects. Friends and family members can help you identify and document any new side effects or symptoms. This information can make a big difference when it comes to finding the right treatment strategy!

It may also be worthwhile to tell your loved ones what you’ve learned about your mental illness through therapy or personal research. If you’ve made any big strides in therapy or learned something new from a support group, sharing this information with loved ones can help them feel more involved. It can also help give you the opportunity to share your growth and celebrate your accomplishments.

Ask for feedback from people you trust

Not everyone in your life is going to be able to give you useful feedback when it comes to your mental illness journey. But opening up an honest dialogue with someone whose opinion you value can lead to important discoveries.

Sometimes we don’t notice our own symptoms or behaviors, particularly when they involve small changes that take place over time. A friend or family member can help by letting us know what they’re observing. Whether it’s a new symptom that should be reported to a doctor or an improvement that deserves congratulations, there’s a lot to be gained by asking a loved one to share their thoughts.

I’m always surprised by what my loved one can observe. While casual friends and acquaintances don’t always notice when I’m struggling with my mental illness, my family usually does. Sometimes they notice that I’m stumbling even before I realize it! Their feedback helps me stay on top of my mental health and reminds me to reach out to my doctor or therapist if I’m having a tough time.

Talking openly and honestly about mental illness is hard. It can be frightening, confusing, and embarrassing to share such personal information with someone else. But the more we talk about our mental health issues, the more we reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Those of us who have struggled with mental health issues in the past are also in a unique position to educate others about mental illness. Though our society has made great strides in the past few decades, there are still plenty of misconceptions and misinformation surrounding the topic of mental illness.

It can be difficult to talk with strangers about our personal struggles, but by starting with our trusted friends and family members, we can make sure that the people in our lives are better informed about mental illness and able to be a part of the solution. The more we talk about our experiences and what we’ve learned from them, the stronger the mental health community becomes.

Do you discuss your mental health issues with the people in your life? What have you gained from talking about your struggles with others? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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