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

When you have a mental health condition, it can be critical to have people by your side who understand and support you. Your parents are 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—especially around the holidays. Here are four steps you can take if your parents don’t understand where your mental health is at right now. 

1. Communicate with them.

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,” Carly*, a college sophomore, shares with Her Campus. “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, and 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 talks 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. Her Campus published this article that details important things that college activists wish more people understood about eating disorders.

No matter what mental health issue 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.

For the most part, our generation grew up with a pretty cohesive understanding of mental health. A lot of us learned about eating disorders and depression in our adolescent health classes, and mental illness has been a pretty common topic on social media for most of our lives. It can be difficult to remember that a lot of our 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). 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.

“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 because actually explaining my actually mental illnesses to her (anxiety and depression),” she notes. 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 probably never 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 the parent or older sibling of your friend or roommate.

Nothing about navigating a mental health illness is easy, but when you have people in your life who care and understand, it’s way less overwhelming. Just remember to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and remember that they don’t have to understand your condition to love you.

* Name has been changed