How to talk to family about your mental health

It can be tough talking about mental health issues, especially if your family aren't very open

27th November 2017

As a society, our collective awareness about mental health has skyrocketed.

Celebrities such as Stormzy, Freddie Flintoff, Rio Ferdinand, Selena Gomez, Cara Delevingne and Adele bringing their own mental health issues to the public domain are creating positive dialogue to combat the stigma.

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem in the UK in any given year but talking to family about mental health can still be a huge challenge.

Although it can be the beginning of a long journey of self-awareness and self-love, the initial recognition to family members that you need help can be scary.

“My mum was really gutted”

Ellie Charles, 23, a human rights law master’s student from London, talks of how it took years before her struggles with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were validated.  

She first realised something was wrong when she was eight years old. “I remember telling my mum that there was a voice in my head telling me to do things. But she shrugged it off,” she says.

“She thought it was a phase – kind of like having an imaginary friend that I would grow out of it. I totally understand it, like I get why she did that.

“But by the time I was 10, I was washing my hands 40 times a day with a voice telling me that I had to count all the stairs I was walking up or someone would die.”

Ellie finally started counselling when she was 18-years old.

“I was tired of my life being that way. My OCD and my depression were so bad that I couldn’t eat in public for two years. The only food I could eat was the stuff my mum cooked for me.”

The turning point with her family was having a professional validate her mental health.

“Once someone who is a healthcare professional says what you have, then they realise. Everyone thought I would grow out of it. Once I started having counselling, my family understood.

“I think it’s difficult because when it happened to me, my mum was really gutted. You think of your kids as amazing but then you realise that they are really struggling with something and that is hard for them.”

Having a professional articulate Ellie’s suffering was a groundbreaking experience when it came to battling her struggles.

“We’re now super open. Everyone is starting to realise that openness is what helps people understand and what keeps people healthy.

“If no one is in the dark then everyone is happier. We talk about it all the time now.”

Ellie’s advice for those who are struggling to overcome feeling of nervousness when talking to family members for the first time is to remember that people will react differently. “Mental health isn’t talked about in school, so everyone is learning when someone in the family is battling a mental illness.

“It’s best to talk to them because they love you but be prepared for them to maybe not get it at first. The more you talk about it, the more you’ll understand.

“But you have to remember, it’s really hard loving someone who has a mental illness – they sometimes need help as well. It’s difficult for them too.”

“I was afraid they’d be judgemental”

Creating the best atmosphere for the first conversation is important to others.

Rebecca Trodden, a psychology and early childhood graduate at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, spoke of her experiences opening up, saying: “Any time this has happened to me, I’ve gone to the most open-minded family member first.

“If there isn’t an open-minded family member I might not tell any of them at all. That’s probably a crappy answer to such a serious issue but I was afraid of giving myself another problem. I was afraid they’d be judgmental, compounding my problem.”

But courage is contagious when it comes to talking to family and the conversations can influence others to lean on family members, says mental health charity Mind.

Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, says there are many reasons why someone might find it difficult to be open about their mental health problems.

He says: “As a friend or loved one it is important to be open to talking. Having that first conversation about mental health can feel daunting but it doesn’t need to be difficult or scary.

“We’d urge people to talk to anyone they trust – such as a friend or family member – in the first instance.

“A clinician can help you access treatment but if you don’t feel ready to take that step, or if you don’t have a good relationship with your GP, it’s still important to speak to somebody.

“We often hear from people that they feel a massive sense of relief once they’ve opened up, particularly if they’ve waited a long time (perhaps because they thought they could get better without help or didn’t think their symptoms were severe enough). 

“Knowing there are people who care about you around can make a big difference to your own wellbeing.”

Offering advice to anyone who is trying but struggling to get their family to understand what they’re getting through, Stephen says: “Remember you are not alone – one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in the UK in any given year.

“You are the expert on your needs – you should explain your triggers to your loved one and also if there is anything they often do or say which you don’t find particularly helpful. 

“It might help to write down your thoughts and feelings or even draw pictures, so you can help prepare what you want to say.”

Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am – 6pm, Monday – Friday).

If you’re the family member

If a loved one is experiencing a mental health problem, what things can you do to create a positive environment for them?

Listen and empathise

You don’t have to be an expert to help someone with a mental health problem. Just asking them how they are feeling and listening non-judgementally can make a big difference. It takes a lot for someone to say “I need help”, but it doesn’t hurt to raise the subject yourself. You don’t have to explicitly talk about mental health – it can be as simple as texting them to let them know you’re thinking of them, inviting them out for coffee or dinner or going for a walk.

Ask how you can help

Your friend or family member may already know how you can support them – like doing breathing exercises together, going for a walk or making them a cup of tea. By asking what you can do to help support someone can help them feel more in control.

Encourage a loved one to seek help

If someone’s mental health is becoming a problem, and affecting their day-to- day life, encourage them to seek help. This could be through their GP or a support group, such as those run by a local Mind. You could ask them if they would like you to help book or attend an appointment with them, or you could research sources of support together. If a loved one is suicidal, act straight away by urging them to call Samaritans on 116 123 or supporting them to go to A&E where they can be seen by a professional.

Keep informed

Knowing where to go for more information about your family member’s mental health problem can be really useful. Visit Mind’s website for more information about mental health problems or call our Infoline on 0300 123 3393 (lines open Monday – Friday, 9am-6pm).

Don’t add pressure

It’s understandable to want to help someone face their fear or focus on leading them towards practical solutions, but it can be very distressing for someone to feel forced to face situations before they’re ready. Patience is key, so take it slowly and support them to do what they feel comfortable with.

Don’t forget to look after yourself

Supporting someone else can sometimes be tough, so it’s important to remember that your health is important too, and make sure to look after yourself. Taking care of your own wellbeing can help you maintain the energy, time and distance you need to be able to help someone else. Mind’s website has more information about supporting someone else.

27th November 2017