There are many reasons that can make it difficult for parents to ‘believe’ in mental illness, even though there is a very good chance that every family has at least one person that is dealing with mental illness of some kind. One of the main reasons why it can be difficult for people to acknowledge that someone in their family has a mental illness is stigma. Stigma about mental illness is when someone is treated unfairly or harshly because of their mental illness, which can be severe, and even lead to losing friends, employment opportunities, and even a variety of health and social services. With parents, even just the fear that their children may experience stigma in school, in the workplace or in a relationship, may be enough to make it seem like they don’t believe in it — at least when it comes to their own children.
One of the other main reasons that may make it difficult for parents to acknowledge that one of their children may have a mental illness is a lack of knowledge about what mental illness is or a lack of information about how mental illness is affecting you.
The lack of knolwedge
There are seven major groups of mental illnesses, including mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, personality disorders, psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia), eating disorders, trauma-related disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), substance abuse disorders. Across all seven groups there are hundreds of distint illness. And although there is lots of information about mental illness in the news and online, many people grow up no knowing much about what mental illness is. They may only hear about the most extreme stories about someone with mental illness who injured someone. As a result, your parents may have grown up not knowing as much as you know about mental illness.
Stigma and the myths about mental illness
One of the biggest and longest-standing myths about mental illness is the belief that people with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
In reality, the facts show that the majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
The lack of information
Aside the lack of knowledge about mental illness, your parents may need more concrete information from you. They may not know how you are feeling and may not see how it affects you. They may only see a very, very small part of your life. As obvious as it may be to you, they may just not see it. They may not even know what to look for.
Fear about the impact of mental illness
One of the things that makes all of this harder is the fear and worry that often arises about mental illness. Parents may get ahead of themselves and see only the worst possible outcomes, even oif you have told them otherwise. Easing their fears and worries may be an important part of getting them to hear and understand what you are trying to say.
How to talk to your parents about it:
1. Plan ahead and write down what you want to say
This will be a very important conversation for you and your parents. You will be more effective if you spend a bit of time writing down what you want to say.
2. Decide who are going to talk to about this first.
Parents react differently. If this is the first time talking about your mental health (or about mental illness), talk to the parent that is going to be more open and understanding. If you are not sure, then talk to mom.
Tip: If neither mom nor dad is likely to be open to this, you might consider talking to a sibling or a relative — someone who is going to understand, be on your side, and, when necessary, talk to your parents about it.
2. Focus on how you feel and how it is affecting your life.
Sometimes the label (e.g., an eating disorder, a mood disorder, psychosis) can garner more attention than what it is worth. You may have to label it at some point but if you are trying to convince mom and dad that you are not doing well, focus on how you feel and how it is affecting your life. People can always argue about the label (i.e., is it really an eating disorder, major depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder). It is more difficult to argue about your feeling and their impact. After all, no one can argue with how you feel. They are your feelings. Start there. You might say something like, this.
Mom and dad, I haven’t been feeling very good. I’ve been feeling sad and anxious and cannot concentrate like I used to. I really don’t feel well.
Then, mention the impact, namely how it affects your life. This will help them understand that it is serious without you needing to say that it is serious. You might say something like, this:
This has been hard for me, it’s getting in the way of my studies, friends, and my sleep. It is starting to affect my grades. I just don’t feel like myself.
The next part is to let them know what you would like to do. Keep in mind that one of the most difficult parts of this for parents is that they won’t know what to do or how to help. You may need to help them out with this. You might say something like this:
This has been more than I can handle, I would like to talk to someone about this — figure out what it is and what to do about it.
Talking to someone to figure out what it is and what to do about it, is an important step. Talking to a health professional, take the decision about what this is out of your hands and away from what your parents think. Once a mental health professional has told you what it is, it may be easier to talk to your parents. They may still not believe it, but at least they will not be arguing with what you think.
And the final part is about providing your parents with a bit of reassurance. This will help them with their worry and may make it easier for them to talk about it. You might say something like this:
Mom and dad, this is really serious and I am going to need some help with this. But, I think I am going to be fine. I just need a bit of help.
Tip: If telling your parents face-to-face is too difficult, try writing it down. Once it is writtin down, you can either read it aloud, or hand it to them to read on their own.
3. Prepare for their reaction
This may come as a shock for parents, and their initial reaction may be just to deny it. They may say it is just a phase, that everyone has difficulties from time to, or that you are overthinking it. If it goes like this, remind them how it affects your life and how it makes you feel. And then tell them that you don’t want to feel this way anymore and that you would like some help with it.
4. If they still don’t get it.
You may have to go over this a number of times before they get it. There are a number of things you can do to help them understand. Here are a few.
- You might consider completing one of the screening tests, printing off the results and showing them the results
- You might ask a family friend or relative to talk to them on your behalf
- You might ask your doctor (or psychologist, psychotherapist, or counsellor if you are seeing one) to help explain it to them.
6. Ask them about their concerns
7. Timing is everything.
Keep in mind that you may be more effective if you choose a time when you have your parents’ full attention. This works best when you give them a bit of a heads-up.
Mom and dad, I would like to sit down and talk about a couple of things that have been on my mind. Could we set aside some time to talk about it tomorrow night.
if they ask … you can say:
It will keep until then. I would like to talk about it tomorrow.
Tip: Pick a time and place where you’ll have your parents’ complete attention when nothing else is happening.
8. Let your parents know how they can help
In most instances, parents will either not know what to do or say and will need your help figuring that out. Or they will be too quick to jump in and start offering advice and suggestions on how to fix things. Neither of these may be what you need at this step. Let them know what you need.
Mom and dad, right now, I just need you to listen. That’s the best way you can help right now.
Mom and dad, I am going to need some help finding someone to talk to about this who can help me figure it all out.
Tip: You may also need to let them know what isn’t helpful, such as asking you how you are doing too often. But, keep in mind that if you.
9. When nothing seems to work
This may turn out to be far more difficult than you ever imagined — for both you and your parents. It is an important conversation that you are going to have to get right at some point. That means you will have to keep at it. If the conversation doesn’t go well at first, wait a while and then do it again. Remind your parents how important it is to you to have this conversation. There are lots of ways to remind them — face-to-face, in a text or in an email. You might say something like this:
Mom and dad, I know this is a hard conversation to have and that it is hard on you. But it is important to me to keep talking about this with you. I want to be able to talk to you both about this.
10. Get the support you need
While you are waiting for your parents to come around, you may need to lean a little bit more on other people in your life. That might include a friend or other family member, or a coach or mentor, or even a helpline.
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STUART, H. (2003). Violence and mental illness: An overview. World Psychiatry, 2(2), 121–124.
Glied, S., & Frank, R. G. (2014). Mental Illness and Violence: Lessons From the Evidence. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), e5–e6. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301710
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