How To Talk To Your Family About Your Mental Health — Especially If They Don’t “Get” It

by JR Thorpe
Ashley Batz/Bustle

Sometimes, the hardest part of living with a mental illness isn't the symptoms, or the management — it's dealing with stigma from other people. And unfortunately, many people who live with mental illness face stigma from family or friends when they try to talk about it. That lack of support, whether it comes in the form of anger, denial, blame or ignorance, can make symptoms worse, particularly if you're in a position where you're dependent on those people for your mental health treatment and care. But you can talk to your family about mental health even if they don't understand it — and there are other ways to cope with the situation, too.

While many celebrities and public figures have helped demystify many mental health conditions by going on the record about their experiences, there are still widespread misconceptions about mental illness and how people who live with them function. Virginia Pillars, a support group leader with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), tells Bustle that a lack of support from families is pretty common. "I hear many people share that they have no support from their families," she says. "They hear that it's their fault, that they're lazy, that they should stand on their own two feet."

If you've told your family or friends about your mental health, only to be met with crickets, it can be helpful to view their actions, though hurtful, as expressions of their concern for you; and while it shouldn't be up to you to educate them about why you're hurt by their stigmatizing behavior, often times it takes your voice to help them understand where you're coming from. (It should be said, by the way, that there's no rule that says you have to disclose mental illness to people who won't support you.) But if you are open to helping your family understand your mental health needs, here are a few things to try.


Give Them Space

Hannah Burton/Bustle

Therapist Kimberley Schaffer tells Bustle that removing yourself from the situation can be one of the most important things to do if someone reacts badly to your diagnosis. “Give the relationship some space (for both of you),” she says. “Try to understand [that] they may not know how to help you. Time, space and patience go a long way. Let them know you are available to talk about it when they are ready.”


Educate Them

Ashley Batz/Bustle

Often, people assess mental health issues through a prism of media misinformation and old prejudices. Psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Washington tells Bustle, “We don’t openly talk about mental health disorders, so often people’s ideas of what it is like comes from TV or other media outlets, which is not always accurate.” So if they’re reacting with a bunch of stereotypes, you can arm them with the information that sets them straight.

“Provide information and education about your mental health issues,” advises Schaffer. “Sometimes people react negatively because they are not informed and they are scared.” She also notes that “Written information from a reputable resource, such as the National Institute Of Mental Health (NAMI), can be helpful, because they can go back and re-read the information, as they process the role mental health has in your life and theirs.”


Address Their Concerns Empathetically

Hannah Burton/Bustle

Dr. Washington tells Bustle that mental illness “can be difficult for family, especially parents, because parents will somehow try to blame themselves for the diagnosis. Other loved ones may have trouble coping due to fear of what a diagnosis really means.” In truth, mental illness comes from everything from genetics to environment and experience, so it can be helpful to address this while you're providing fact-based information about your illness.


Understand Where Their Negativity Is Coming From

Ashley Batz/Bustle

While it can be incredibly tricky to separate yourself from your disappointment that your support system isn't reacting well, it can be helpful to think about why they feel the way they feel. “Know that their reaction says a lot more about them than it says about you,” counselor Heidi McBain tells Bustle. “Often these negative reactions are fear-based, so they may be scared that they may have a mental disorder too, they may be scared that your diagnosis will somehow reflect badly on them, or they may be scared that they won’t know how to help you if you need help from them.” Practice the empathy you want them to extend to you; it could make a big difference.


Take Care Of Yourself

Ashley Batz/Bustle

Here's an important thing to remember about their issue: This is not your problem to carry. It's theirs. “Try to focus on taking care of yourself,” notes Schaffer. “Self-care is extremely important and can be overlooked when we are focussed on other people.” If you're finding it difficult to cope with their reaction, prioritize your own wellness with therapy, rest, good food and rituals you know make you feel better.


Understand When Enough Is Enough

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

If, after all your efforts, someone close to you still continues to give you the cold shoulder, refuses to believe you, offers unhelpful suggestions, insults or disregards your agency, it's OK to make a change in your relationship to that person. Do you simply never talk about your diagnosis again in front of them? Only bring it up in company when you have support from a spouse, friends or supportive family members? Cut the person out of your life? This is something to discuss with mental health professionals and therapists who are helping with your treatment, to figure out what's best for your own health and wellbeing going forward.


Look For Support In Other Places

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is seek support elsewhere,” Dr. Washington tells Bustle. “So many organizations and national ones like NAMI have local chapters with support groups for people diagnosed with mental illness." This can be helpful for people who don't understand or are being unsupportive. "It would also be beneficial for the family or loved ones to attend progress geared towards education so that they can learn more about the illness," suggests Dr. Washington.

Pillars tells Bustle, "NAMI share coping strategies with the family, like finding one or two close confidants who can listen, coming to support groups where there is no judgment because we've all lived it, and arming themselves with education to educate the nay-sayers (we provided sources and education). Most of all, we tell them it's NOT their fault that their family member has a mental health issue. It's a brain disorder, not a character flaw."

It can be very difficult to cope with a family member or friend's difficulties with your mental illness. But it's something that many other people have experienced, and you can always remember: it's not you, it's them.