How to Talk to Your Parents About Mental Illness

This topic really hits home for me. When I was 17, I finally came forward with how I had been feeling for far too long, or, more accurately, my doctor did. It is extremely difficult to say how you feel, especially when you don’t feel comfortable sharing that part of yourself with your family. Over the past year, I have learned a lot about how mental illness effects not only yourself, but your family too. It is so important to realize that your parents may have a difficult time processing this information because they have never experienced it themselves. I’m hoping my experience will help you to speak up or find someone to help you do so.

I have always been a very private person. I am very cautious about what I say because I have always been so afraid that people will not take me seriously. Growing up as an only child with cousins who are all at least 15 years older than me, I was always the “kid.” People always had to apologize for swearing or had to remind themselves to ask me about school. I felt so out of place and was often bored and alone at family events. This is nothing against my family, it is just that I am the only one in my generation. I have had a difficult time relating to my family because of the age gap and the fact that I very rarely share anything personal about myself.

It is the same with my parents. There have been times where I have been told that I am not trusted, which has caused me not to trust my parents with my personal feelings and challenges. I always felt as if my parents did not understand what it was like to be me, and that they weren’t making an effort to learn. My childhood was extremely different from that of my parents. My dad grew up with a big family, always outside with the neighborhood kids and was working as soon as he could walk. My mother grew up in New York with a big Italian family who shared a strong faith. I was constantly being told to “go outside and play” or, “invite a friend over.” If I went outside, I would be all alone, and I felt bad asking friends to come over; I didn’t want to force anyone to hang out with me.

As I got older, I kept creating a bigger distance between myself and my parents. I kept telling myself that I didn’t need help, and that I could deal with my problems on my own. But in reality, I was digging myself into a hole of loneliness and unfulfillment. There were definitely times where I thought about talking to my parents. I used to sit down and write letters. I poured all of my emotion onto these pieces of paper, but then I crumbled them up and threw them away. I just kept hearing my mom tell me to stop being so negative, and my dad telling me to exercise because the endorphins would lift my mood. This was not what I needed to hear. I wanted someone to understand me, not to give me advice. It only pushed me farther away from speaking up. I felt as if my parents would not believe I needed professional help, and that I would go back to dealing with it on my own.

At my 17-year check-up, I filled out a survey about my mental health. I answered the questions honestly and handed them in to my pediatrician. After my mom was dismissed from the room, my doctor started asking me questions about my life at home. Again, I was very honest with her. As I was speaking, I started to cry. All of the words I had written down in letters or said to myself in the shower were finally being heard by someone. It was really scary for me to open up to someone and allow myself to be vulnerable.

My mother was brought back into the exam room, and my doctor told her that she believed I may be suffering from depression. She recommended that I see a therapist. To my surprise, my mother agreed to this. The car ride home was very silent and awkward, but I was relieved. To have my feelings and sadness be validated by a doctor was a huge step for me. My parents did not make a big deal out of the news, in fact, they did not say much at all. I think they were confused, or maybe feeling guilty for not seeing it themselves.

At my first therapy appointment, my therapist asked me questions and evaluated me (as is usually done in an initial visit). She, too, believed that I was dealing with a depressive disorder. Later, when I saw a psychiatrist, I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression. It was such a relief to know that my feelings fit into a category and that they could be treated. Knowing that I didn’t have to feel that way anymore was extremely overwhelming and left me feeling hopeful for the first time in months.

After months of one-on-one therapy, group therapy, medication and moving away to start college, I can proudly say that I feel so much better. I have the occasional day where I just want to stay in bed and cry at sad songs for no reason, but it happens once a month, rather than every day. Mental illness does not have to define you or your lifestyle. Yes, it will have a big impact on what makes you who you are, but you have a choice to turn it into a speed bump rather than a cliff. Taking the step to tell your parents how you feel is extremely difficult. It is something that you may wrestle with for months, or even years, like I did.

However, my doctor was able to talk to my mother with no crying, yelling or arguing. If you are struggling to approach them on your own, do not hesitate to talk with a doctor or trusted adult. It sucks, but your parents might be more willing to listen to another adult than to their hormonal teenager who locks herself in her room all day. If you are nervous about your family taking you seriously, I highly recommend talking to your doctor and figuring out a way to break the news in a mature way that your family will take to heart.

I am still not as close to my parents as I want to be, but now I know that they do really care about me and want me to feel the best that I can. At this point, I would rather talk to my therapist than my family, but that is totally okay. As long as there is someone who you can trust to listen to you and take you seriously, you will be able to make progress. Dealing with your mental illness alone is a truly horrible experience. I wonder how many nights of crying myself to sleep I could have avoided if only I’d spoken up sooner. Believe me, I know it is hard to feel distant from your parents, but at the end of the day, they need to know what is going on with you so that you can work together to find a solution.

 

Because everyone experiences mental illness differently, here are some additional, anonymous stories from Her Campus Pitt. I hope you can find a bit of yourself in one of our stories.

“It took me almost a year to tell my parents that I was feeling depressed in high school. At first, they didn’t understand and thought that what I was feeling wasn’t valid and that I was making myself depressed on purpose. As I graduated high school and started college, they began to understand more. They recognized my depression more so than ever before and tried their best to support me. They encouraged me to see the counseling center at Pitt and thought that seeing an outside psychologist was a good idea. They encouraged me to participate in activities that would make me feel good about myself and less sad about life in general. The first conversation is always the hardest. No parent wants their child to deal with mental health issues, so your parents may deny your feelings at first. Hopefully they will come around and support you as you work toward a healthier life.

“It took me a while to talk to my parents because I was nervous that they would be like: "No, everyone is anxious/depressed at this age. You're not special." I finally called my mom up one day this May (though I'd been especially anxious/depressed since freshman year and a little in high school) and was sobbing so much because I was nervous that she thought something horrible was going on. When I told her how I had been feeling, she was so accepting and recognized that it's not something like everyday test anxiety. I talked to my dad that night and both of them have helped me tremendously with getting connected to resources. It's hard because I didn't want my parents to be super worried about me either since I live six hours away, but it feels better now knowing that they're a phone call away and that they know what's going on, rather than hiding it every time we talked.”

“For me, it's something that I had no choice but to discuss because it was so clearly out in the open—which I know is a unique case because it is way too easy for mental illness to go unnoticed. I suffered from, and still minutely do, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and social anxiety. In middle school, I started refusing to touch various things around the house, like the TV remote, door handles or really anything that lots of people touched. I mean anything. My parents were the ones that really brought up the idea of getting help; I didn't want to because I thought I was content with the way I lived, but I was definitely lying to myself. I think they were so proactive with me because my mom also had experience with anxiety and depression. So, I think it's important to remember when talking with parents about this stuff is that they might know more about it and understand it more than you think. Anxiety and depression can be hereditary, so who's to say that they themselves haven't gone through something similar at some point in their lives? On the other end spectrum, my dad had no experience whatsoever with stuff like this, but he was just as involved as my mom in understanding and wanting this monster off my back. If they hadn’t pushed me to get help, I might still be refusing to touch door knobs and school desks.”

“For me, I've always been very open with my mom. I think part of the reason why I am so close with her is because my dad was deployed a lot, so we naturally are close. She was the one that could tell something was wrong in junior high and constantly would ask me what was wrong. Eventually, I told her I was depressed, and she took me to therapy right away. I also remember if there was a bad day at school or some drama happened, my mom and I would go on these long car rides and grab coffee at either Dunkin or Starbucks so we could just vent and talk about everything. My mom was even the one who pushed me to consider transferring when my mental health declined severely last semester. I am so thankful to have a mom who likes open dialogue when it comes to talking about mental health and is proactive in seeking treatment.”

“My mom has also suffered with mental illness, but it was never something she told me or that we talked about. I was hesitant to tell her for the longest time but senior year, as more and more stressors added up and my anxiety worsened, I finally opened up and told her about how anxious I had been feeling. At first, she was in a sort of denial and told me that "being anxious about college is normal," and other things that dismissed my feelings. Instead of getting angry, I decided to talk to her more and explain that this wasn't all that I was anxious about, and she listened and was super understanding. My mom then helped me find a therapist that taught me methods to deal with my anxiety attacks and feelings. She is also the first person I call to this day when I start to feel too anxious. I'm glad I finally had the conversation with her, even if it was difficult and rocky.”

I hope you learned something from our experiences that can help you, or that you can share with a friend who may need it. Don’t forget that where you are now does not have to be where you stay. If you ever feel so lost that you don’t know what to do, or where to go for help, this link will provide you with resources:

 https://www.nami.org/find-support/nami-helpline/top-25-helpline-resources

If you are in need of LGBTQ+ specific information, here are some additional resources for you:

https://pflag.org/hotlines

Photo Credit: Cover Image

Sources: 1, 2