4 Steps To Take When Your Parents Don't Understand Your Mental Health

When you have a mental health condition, it's critical to have people by your side who understand and support you. Your parents may be some of the most important people in your life, so when you don’t feel like they really understand what you’re going through, it can make coping with poor mental health a million times more challenging. Here are four steps you can take if your parents don’t understand where your mental health is at right now. 

1. Communicate with your parents.

Sometimes, talking about your mental health condition, especially with your parents, is the last thing you want to do. “Talking to my parents about things can be super difficult,” says Carly,* a college sophomore. “I get so emotional, and it’s really hard to put what I’m going through into words. They’ll give me this well-intentioned advice, and I’m just like, you’re not helping.”

However, if you don’t make an effort to communicate with your parents and help them understand, you can’t expect them to feel equipped to support you. If you don’t think you can sit down and have a candid conversation with them, try writing them a letter or email describing how you feel. Make sure that you explain why you chose to write your feelings instead of talking in person, because they might be upset that you chose a more impersonal method of communication.

When telling your parents about your mental health condition, give them the benefit of the doubt. Their lack of knowledge and understanding isn’t their fault. Explain your problems in terms that they’ll understand and don’t guilt trip them for their ignorance. For example, instead of saying, “I have really bad anxiety because you put so much pressure on me to do well in school,” say, “I feel really scared and nervous all the time, even when I know in my head that there’s no reason to be. I think a lot of it comes from the overwhelming pressure that I feel to succeed academically.”

Related: 7 Signs It Might Be Really Helpful for You to See a Therapist

2. Use your resources.

Mental health can be an incredibly difficult concept to understand, so it can be challenging to be your parents’ teacher. Luckily, you have access to countless resources that can help your parents get a better handle on things.

For example, this TED talk does a great job of describing the dark realities of depression and can be a great resource for someone who doesn’t understand the difference between sadness and depression.

Or, if you want something shorter and more comprehensive, this video explains what depression is in five minutes, and this three minute video explains the science behind depression (which may be incredibly useful for someone who thinks you can just “get over it”).

If you have anxiety, this video gives a comprehensive rundown on what anxiety is, and this video talks about the symptoms of general anxiety and panic disorder. It also doesn’t hurt to send your parents a reputable medical webpage characterizing the illness, such as this page that talks about anxiety.

Recovery Warriors is a great resource for those dealing with an eating disorder, and this article of theirs specifically deals with “practical ways to help a loved one” who’s fighting an eating disorder. This TED talk discusses about why it’s so difficult to treat an eating disorder and could be particularly helpful if your parents want you to “just stop” your potentially harmful behaviors. Additionally, Her Campus published this article that details important things that college activists wish more people understood about eating disorders.

No matter what mental health difficulties you have, you should be able to find a video or article that will help your parents understand. This TED talk discusses the stigma of mental health illnesses. If your parents like to read, there are fantastic novels that feature protagonists with depression or anxiety, and present the illnesses in ways that they might find more interesting and compelling.

However, you want to make sure you watch the video first (or have a trusted friend do it if it’s too triggering for you) because it’s the internet and you always run the risk of spreading misinformation.

Related: What to Do When Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder

3. Understand cultural differences.

Many college students these days grew up with a pretty cohesive understanding of mental health. A lot of them learned about eating disorders and depression in their adolescent health classes and mental illness has been a pretty common topic on social media for most of their lives. It can be difficult to remember that a lot of parents grew up during a time when “mental health” wasn’t even a common phrase, and it was almost unheard of to talk about having depression or anxiety.

“My mother is a very traditional Sinti woman, so she generally is very leery of any medical or mental health professional (or anyone who isn't Romani, i.e. gadjé)," says Chelsea. "Mental health, in general, isn't a normal discussion in Sinti culture, so it was difficult to even start the conversation with my mother, so I actually turned to my therapist and asked her for her opinion on how to approach my mother about my mental health."

Chelsea says her therapist advised her on how to talk to her mother. “My therapist basically told me to start the conversation by telling my mother how my mental health treatments and therapy sessions really help my way of life and mental health, so that I would start with the positives of the treatment," she says. "Actually explaining my mental illnesses to her (anxiety and depression) ... you can’t expect someone to instantly understand a concept that isn’t traditionally discussed in their culture. It takes time and a lot of patience, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you."

4. Surround yourself with people who *do* understand. 

Depending on your situation, you may find that your parents will never fully understand your mental health illness. In that case, it’s incredibly important to make sure that you have someone in your life who does.

Julia, a freshman at Virginia Tech, says, “It’s important to have stable adults in your life, or at least to have older kids that you can look up to and get help and support from.” A therapist is a great resource, but it’s also important that you have people in your life who you can talk to and spend time with without any form of judgment. This could be an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a family friend, or even the parent or older sibling of your friend or roommate — whoever you're most comfortable speaking with.

Nothing about navigating mental health difficulties is easy, but when you have people in your life who care about your mental health and take the time to understand your struggles, it’s way less overwhelming. Just remember to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and remind yourself that people don’t have to understand your condition in order to love you and support you.

*Name has been changed.