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Talking to your family about your mental health

Mental health awareness brings greater understanding about mental health problems. The world is slowly becoming more aware of mental health problems and with this greater awareness we are gradually seeing a greater understanding of many conditions. However, it can still be a very daunting task to tell your families and children about your condition. This page will provide you with some tips and support for telling those you love. It is important to remember that they are the people that love you and whilst there may be some initial confusion or denial they will ultimately be there to support you.

You may be diagnosed with a mental health condition that you may not feel comfortable sharing with your family and it may take some time for you to come around to the idea of sharing. This is absolutely fine. We don’t always announce to our families when we have a physical health problem right away. However, it is advisable to try to include some members of your family to support you through the course of treatment and acceptance because mental health conditions often lead to a sense of isolation. With mental health problems, isolation is something best avoided as we have discussed in other areas of this website.

Talking to a family member for the first time

It may be you feel your family would support you best if you sit down and talk to them all at the same time. If this is the case then that is excellent. However, in the vast majority of cases this will be too overwhelming and as such we would suggest telling one or two people first and then using their support to tell the rest of your family. It may be that you have a member of the family who has a history of mental health problems themselves. This may be a good person to talk to as they will understand some of what you are feeling and will also understand more about the therapeutic processes you are going through. When you do tell a family member or members, do be prepared for questions. It is perfectly acceptable to decline questions that make you feel uncomfortable and to let your family know this is the case. It is also fine to say you don’t know the answer to a question, this is likely to be the case for a number of questions, especially at the start of treatment, and you will hopefully be able to answer these questions together. If you do have information, maybe from a charity site or a therapist, it may be helpful to share it with your family. There may also be times in treatment where it is useful to get your family involved, either in therapy sessions, completing tasks or medication monitoring and the more knowledge they have the better.

Dealing with a negative response

Unfortunately in some cases you may find that a family member does not react in the way that you had anticipated. They may have had a bad reaction or may have had no reaction at all. There are many reasons why a family member may act like this, such as guilt, confusion or denial, and in many cases further discussion may elicit a more positive response. In some cases you may find that you are unable to get any positive response or support from the person you have confided in, we hope these instances are rare but they do happen, and in these situations it is best for you to move on to talk to somebody who will hopefully be more understanding. Guilt is likely to be a big problem, especially if your family has a history of mental health problems. Family members may place guilt and responsibility on their own shoulders as they may believe it is a genetic trait that they have passed on to you, or they may believe the way they helped raise you may have caused your current problems. In these situations it is important to emphasise that you are not looking to place blame and that the focus of you talking to them is to gain support. Others may appear more confused or defensive when presented with this issue. This is often due to a lack of understanding of mental health conditions and the lack of physical symptoms of mental health problems. In these cases it may take more time for these people to understand the situation and to provide support.

Talking to your children

When it comes to telling your children your approach will largely depend on the age and maturity of the child, as well as your relationship with them. It may be best to discuss the condition with a spouse or another family member first to help decide the best approach in telling your child. Again this is only if you are comfortable sharing this information. For younger children it would be best to keep explanations basic and at a level they may comprehend. If you are due to go for a hospital stay then explain that you will be away for a while and that you will still be able to phone and visit when you are feeling a little better. With older children it is likely best to treat them in the same way as you would treat telling an older family member. Children are likely to have questions so have some responses ready that are age appropriate. Analogies and metaphors are useful ways to help to explain conditions to younger children, especially with symptoms of mental health problems that are not overtly visible to the child. You may also find it useful to categorise your illness using proper terminology instead of phrases such as ‘poorly’. This is so your child does not confuse what you are experiencing with other times they have been poorly, such as with a cold or with a tummy ache. This does not mean you will need to explain all the details of your condition to your child if you are not comfortable doing this, but allows them to understand the distinction. It will be important to reassure your child and to ask if they have any concerns that they would like to address. If you are in treatment it may be possible to bring older children along to a session to discuss their questions or queries with a qualified professional. Some children may need some support themselves in dealing with the news or the symptoms of your medication or condition.

Ultimately it is important to remember that your family will want what is best for you and will do what they can to support you throughout this process.

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