It seems like we’ve come not nearly far enough in reducing the stigma associated with mental health. In our modern society, people tend to discuss physical health problems openly, while hiding mental health issues.
Compounding this problem, holiday gatherings are prime time for both catching up with relatives, and fielding somewhat nosy questions. So it’s pretty likely the topic of your mental health may come up at the holiday table.
But it’s so hard not to talk about what you’re going through. Here’s how to approach relatives who dismiss self-care and emotional wellbeing, and how to discuss your own mental health without shame.
Sharing the Facts
A recent survey conducted by SeeMe found that only 37% of young people would talk to someone if they were struggling to cope with mental health, compared to 78% who would open up if they were struggling with physical health.
In some regions, one in five believe depression is caused by “God’s will,” alone. More than 40% believe it is the result of a lack of willpower.
These rampant depression myths make openness almost impossible.
All the science tells us otherwise, and in strong terms – the brain is a physical piece of the rest of the body, controlled by the same basic tenets of chemistry and biology that cause problems in your back or stomach.
But sometimes mind-bogglingly, those closest to us often resist the overwhelming evidence.
Leading up to a family event where you might have to talk about your mental health, try to resist intrusive thoughts, or ruminations: dark ideas that may taunt you in this situation of disconnect. Worst case scenario, you can always refuse to discuss your personal life, for the sake of your emotional wellness.
If all else fails, it is better to focus on embracing yourself with self-compassion before spending an afternoon/evening with an incredulous family member. But there are still ways to explain to your family what’s up.
Know Your Audience
Talking about mental health experiences, things might be a little awkward at first for both parties in the conversation. We can all agree that talking about anything related to health and/or body can be tough – mental health is even tougher.
Starting a conversation with those family members who might not understand mental health is a daunting task. However, just because they may not understand the complexities of depression or any other mental illness does not mean that they’ll never be able to.
They may not have the current capacity to understand an experience they haven’t had, or to admit to a reality that is complicated and confusing.
In all honesty, it can be discouraging if you work up the courage to speak up and are told ‘’you’ve just got the blues,” “get over it,” or “you worry too much.” Sometimes this kind of reaction has to do with culture and expectations. Sometimes, with misinformation and lack of experience.
Start the Conversation
When you do come across an opportunity to discuss your mental health journey, it’s ok to speak your truth. It’s also helpful to be prepared, with some ideas you would like to bring up. Here are a few jumping-off points, to get started:
- First, aim for a situation where there is an open window of time to have an in-depth discussion, and neither you nor the person you’re talking to will have to cut the conversation short for other obligations. Try to set aside more time than you think you’ll need. If nothing else, you might need a breather, after!
- Start with a text if a face to face talk is too intimidating. For example, it could be something along the lines of “I have some important things on my mind and need to make time to talk to you about them if that’s alright with you.”
- To make your discussion more productive, do some research online, and find the facts that speak most to your situation. Make sure that your searches turn up reliable information, from original sources like government or academic health organizations.
- Here are some resources with helpful information on anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and the general value of peer support: Psych Central, mentalhealth.gov, Harvard Health. In addition to more convincingly speaking your truth, you may learn other things about your own mental health that you didn’t know before, just by doing a simple search in your free time!
- It may help to plan out how you’ll explain what you’re going through. Reflecting on your own how’s, when’s, and why’s ahead of time may help you feel more sure, going into a situation that might turn into a hot seat.
Your Right to Privacy/Discretion
Finally, remind your relative that your thoughts and feelings – and how you came to express them – should not be subject to gossip.
You’ve chosen to share sensitive information, and it should only be shared further on your terms. Let that person know that this was tough for you and that this interaction shouldn’t be discussed with others, without permission.
When you need to discuss your challenges with a skeptical relative, the main thing to convey, is that mental health issues are as real and actionable as physical ones.
Once they grasp that, they may find it easier to hear the personal details you share and offer support (this relates to framing). Opening up to those closest to us not only lets us breathe easier in our skin, but also turns society’s tide toward the truth – that it’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to talk.
The more we talk about mental health, the more we break down the barriers to ending the stigma associated with it. So let’s get the ball rolling!
Written by: Alyssa Foster