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How to Talk to Loved Ones About Mental Illness

09 March 2018

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Many people shy away from discussing mental illness. Nobody should feel ashamed of mental illness, but it can be embarrassing to talk about, especially if your loved ones don’t understand. According to Mental Health America, approximately 54 million people suffer from mental illness in the United States. That’s almost 17 percent of the population.

Initiating and facilitating positive conversations about mental health, either as the diagnosed or as a supporter, can seem uncomfortable. We’ve consulted two INTEGRIS experts to help shed light on this topic. Licensed behavioral practitioner Sarah J. Barry is the business and community development liaison for INTEGRIS Mental Health. Aloysha Charvee Nash is a licensed professional counselor and licensed drug and alcohol counselor with the INTEGRIS Decisions Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program and Mobile Assessment Team.

What is mental illness?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, "A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational or other important activities.”

Barry breaks it down further by explaining, “A mental disorder is a disease that impacts the way an individual thinks, feels and/or behaves, impacting that person’s ability to function optimally.” Mental illness can negatively impact daily life in a variety of ways including mood changes, social withdrawal, phobias and fatigue.

How can I talk to loved ones about their mental illness?

It is important to choose a comfortable and safe place to hold a conversation about mental illness. Make sure you can have each other’s full and undivided attention. Consider where everyone will feel comfortable, but ultimately the initiator of the conversation needs to feel relaxed in the environment. Whether you choose to hold the discussion in your home, on a walk, at a coffee shop or over dinner with a small group of loved ones, make sure the atmosphere is safe, comfortable and supportive.

“Dealing with teens regularly, I have learned that many of them prefer to be approached alone in a safe environment, such as their home,” Nash adds. “Many have said they appreciate loved ones coming to them directly and privately rather than getting others involved.”

Begin the conversation with support and kindness, without being judgmental. Imagine you are discussing a medical problem and begin the conversation in the same manner.

“If you were concerned about a cough that your father had that didn’t seem to be going away,” Barry explains, “you might say something to the effect of ‘Dad, I have noticed that you have had this cough for several months now and it hasn’t gone away. I am worried about it. Can I help you get in to see your doctor to have him check it out?’ If you were concerned that your father might have a mood disorder, approach it in the same way, ‘Dad, I am concerned about you. You seem to have been agitated for the past several weeks and Mom mentioned that you are sleeping very little, and some nights not at all. Can I help you get in to see your doctor to have it checked out?”

Throughout the conversation, it’s important to make your loved one feel comfortable. “Go in with an open mind,” Nash says. “Try to not have an overreaction to what is being said. People, especially teens, want to feel heard, and they want their feelings validated. Hear them out and then develop a plan to get them some help if needed.”

Let the conversation be a collaboration. “Focus on how you can support your loved one, and what specific things he or she needs from you to best manage the illness,” Barry adds.

As a parent, it’s important to avoid placing blame or overreacting. “It is important to be persistent, to be proactive,” Nash says. “Don’t place blame, and try not to overreact or make your child's mental illness feel like a burden.” Remind your child that, as a parent, it is your job to keep your child safe and healthy. Be supportive and remember to listen to your child’s perspective.

How can I talk about my mental illness with others?

While the principles previously mentioned apply, discussing your own mental illness takes a slightly different approach. While sharing your mental illness with others can be intimidating, talking to a loved one can improve stress levels and provide support.

When preparing to talk about your mental illness with a friend, family member, significant other or employer, it’s important to remember that you are your own expert. There is not a specific number of people you should tell, nor is there a certain time that you should tell others.

“In the same way that you put a lot of thought into sharing with people that you are pregnant, when planning to share with others about your mental illness, consider who to tell, when to tell them and what to say to them,” Barry says. Weigh the pros and cons of not telling each person and consider if you believe their response will be supportive. Base your approach, location and timing on these factors.

Prepare your loved ones for the conversation by letting them know that you have something personal to share with them. Ask them to let you speak first and wait to respond until you are done sharing your story. Barry suggests sharing how the disease affects you by explaining the specifics:

“Instead of just saying, ‘I have Bipolar Disorder,’ say something like, ‘I have Bipolar Disorder and how it affects me is that sometimes I feel so up that I feel out of control like my brakes are out, and at other times I feel so low that I feel stuck, like my parking brake is on. At times when I am up, I might sleep only one or two hours a night or maybe not at all. At times when I am low, I might not be able to get out of bed for days.’ Be as specific and concrete as you can, but do not feel that you have to share any details you are not comfortable talking about.”

Prior to the conversation, decide what you are comfortable sharing and what you’d like to keep private. Setting these boundaries will help you stay true to the course of the conversation. Bring positivity into the discussion by mentioning the good things that come along with your mental illness. What have you learned? How have you persevered? Take these positive aspects and discuss how your loved one can support you and help you continue to have positive experiences.

Keep an open mind when listening to their response. “Be aware that your loved ones might not understand your mental illness,” Nash says. “They might be shocked. They might cry and ask why. Know that they want you to be healthy, but sometimes they are not sure how to take the news.”

Mental and physical health are equally important. If you believe you or a loved one have a mental illness, visit a mental health professional. INTEGRIS Mental Health provides many resources including free, anonymous online screenings for common mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, bipolar, PTSD, alcoholism, gambling, and eating disorders. If you prefer group sessions, INTEGRIS Decisions Outpatient programs allow group participation throughout the week.

For immediate assistance, the INTEGRIS Mobile Assessment Team of mental health professionals is available 24 hours a day for mental health assessments.