Mental health and your family

How do you tell your family about your mental health condition? What if they’re not supportive? The Mix finds out how best to broach the subject.

Sad girl with dog

If you feel only your dog understands, it may be worth chatting to your family.

Should I tell my family about my mental health issues?

It would be great if you could turn to your family in times of need, but you might find it difficult to tell them about mental illness – especially if they usually avoid discussing problems and feelings, or if family issues have actively contributed to your condition.

“We need help when we feel like we can’t cope very easily,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Corinne Sweet. “If you’re at that point, you absolutely do need to reach out. But it’s often the case that your family is part of the problem.”

Corinne says to remember you’re not alone. “Nine out of 10 people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. You may well have relatives who’ve experienced the same thing as you,” she says.

“It probably won’t be a surprise if you say there are things you’re struggling with. Chances are they already know on some level.”

How to start talking to your family

So how should you approach the conversation? Start by following these steps.

Get your expectations sorted: Think about what you actually want from your family. Ask yourself why you want to tell them about how you’re feeling. What reaction are you hoping to get? How will you feel if their response isn’t what you wanted?

Consider who to approach: “Look at the family members you’ve got and ask yourself who’s going to listen and understand,” says Corinne. “Sometimes we haven’t got anybody like that, though.”

Write things down: It can help plan what you want to say and get things straight in your head. And if talking face to face is just too hard, you might want to text or email your family instead.

Keep it practical: Don’t just say what’s wrong and hope they’ll know what to do with the information. “Be clear about what you actually want,” says Corinne. “You might say, ‘I find this difficult to talk about, but I really want you to know how I’m feeling. I’d like you to take it seriously and not tease me about it.”‘

Don’t overwhelm them: This is just an initial conversation to introduce the issue. You might build up to talking in more depth, but it’s probably unwise to say everything that’s on your mind right away.

How will they react?

Some families are very understanding and your relatives might say they’re pleased you confided in them. But it’s very common for people to react by getting defensive or simply not knowing what to say, which is why it helps to have realistic expectations and be clear about what you need.

“You may just want them to acknowledge the fact that you’re finding things difficult,” says Corinne. “You probably won’t get as far as talking about how your parents treated you, what happened with the divorce, or whatever the issue is, although that’s something that could potentially come in time.”

Are you worried they’ll take it badly?

If you think the conversation could go badly you might want to have someone with you for moral support. “It can help to find someone you trust who can sit with you and your family members while you talk and dilute the family dynamic,” says Corinne.

“Your relatives may behave better in the presence of a third party,” she explains. “So you might want to have a friend with you, or maybe there’s a sibling or an auntie who can help diffuse the situation.”

Parents can get very defensive if they feel blamed or attacked (even if what you’re saying is true) after all, the truth can hurt. They may have contributed to your condition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready to hear about it.

“If you tell your parents they’re the reason why you’re anxious or depressed, they’ll probably try to defend themselves and things can get very ugly,” says Corinne. “People react badly when they feel like they’re under attack.”

It’s better to focus on how your condition is affecting you, how you feel about it, and what they can do to help.

What if they just don’t get it?

Some families just aren’t supportive. For example, you might come from a family where everybody pretends things are alright when they’re not, or perhaps your relatives just aren’t well-informed about mental health issues.

Try looking to other sources of support, such as The Mix’s online community. You can get details of local self-help groups from NHS Local, GPs, libraries and charities such as Mind and Depression Alliance, whose Friends in Need network is launching soon.

It can help to leave people with information leaflets or links to read. “But there may be some people who are total lost causes,” says Corinne. “Look for people in your life who are a positive force and make you feel good about yourself.”

“If your relatives make you feel bad and it stirs up stuff when you see them, you might need to think about spending less time with them.”

Next Steps

  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • SANE offer support and information to people affected by mental illness. 0300 304 7000
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Anne Wollenberg

Updated on 29-Sep-2015