Help Them Help You: Explaining Your Mental Health to Your Family

Your mental health can affect — and be affected by — your loved ones. Here's how to discuss it with them so everyone can heal

January 22, 2024
Family members in a counseling session

Mental health is a personal matter, but it affects virtually everything we do. Everyone has mental health, of course, and everyone’s mental health can be worn out or knocked down. But sometimes folks struggle to find a baseline of well-being and happiness, and it can be endlessly frustrating: Why, we ask ourselves, does it seem so easy for everyone else?

For people undergoing disorienting changes — early recovery from addiction is certainly one! — and those with persistent, diagnosable mental health conditions, opening up to others can be challenging. Whom do we tell, and why? How will they react? Yet having people around you whose support you can rely on is tremendously important, in good times and not-so-good ones.

Your family is often part of that support network. Your family members are complicated — different generations, varying levels of understanding and sympathy toward mental health conditions. If you have mental health issues, explaining them to your family members, who may be uninformed, can feel daunting. 

It’s ultimately not your responsibility to educate family members, but it’s necessary to communicate your needs in some way, whether you’re in recovery or dealing with other mental health disorders. It may take some patience and time. But when you make the effort to explain your condition, it allows for healing, understanding, trust-building and dialogue for everyone. It can also equip family members to support you if your mental health takes a turn for the worse — and to get any support they may need.

You might be surprised at the reception to this talk! After all, everyone has mental health.

A Mental Health Disorder Is a ‘Family Disease’

While general awareness of mental health conditions has come a long way, there are, unfortunately, still some stigmas around them today. One of these stigmas is that mental illness is not a clinical disease. Some people still minimize it as some sort of personal idiosyncrasy or even choice. But, of course, you can’t simply snap your fingers and make your depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or schizophrenia vanish.

The overall consensus among mental health pros is that mental illnesses are also chronic diseases. The “chronic” part is important because it means the disease will persist or worsen unless some type of help is found. 

But mental health, even among those with serious disorders, can also be improved; mental well-being can remain healthy with treatment. It may help to think of mental illness in the same way as other chronic but manageable conditions, such as diabetes or some heart conditions. This can be useful when explaining your mental health and its serious nature to family members.

A person’s mental health condition can also affect the rest of the family. This concept is a “family disease” is more often invoked regarding addiction, but it’s true of other mental health disorders as well. You may, or may not, choose to bring up the “family disease” aspect with your family. They may, or may not, already understand it on some level.

Family members in a counseling session

Explaining Your Mental Health for Your Own Benefit — And Your Family’s

It’s worthwhile to remember when explaining your mental health issues that this can benefit your loved ones as much as you. If mental illness is a family disease, the entire family needs to recover, not just the individual. The symptoms of your condition likely affect their mental health. 

Equally important, your family will want to support you in the work you’re doing to get to a place of stability, peace and well-being.

So, how can you go about explaining your mental health to your family? A few options, tips and tools that may help:

  • Explain to them that while your mental health issues may be out of your control, you are working to manage and improve them
  • Offer them the opportunity to participate in family therapy sessions
  • Show them some places online where they can access more information on mental illness. You can start right here
  • Help connect them to family support groups where they can speak to and learn from others experiencing similar situations
  • Create a plan together that the entire family can follow if your mental health symptoms return or worsen, and need immediate attention

Creating a ‘Relapse’ Prevention and Continued Recovery Plan

When people hear the word “relapse,” they usually think of addiction. However, a relapse can happen with other mental health conditions as well. A mental illness relapse simply means that the symptoms return and become unmanageable. 

(A quick note here: Some people find the word “relapse” stigmatizing, in both contexts. You might call it a “setback” or “return to symptoms,” in the case of mental health disorders, or a “return to use” when talking about substance use disorders.)

A return to symptoms can happen for a number of reasons, many of which are out of your control. For example, a medication may stop working, and new ones are needed to get you back on track. But a return to symptoms does not have to create friction within the family if a plan is in place.

What might such a plan look like? 

  • Make sure that your doctors’ and/or counselors’ phone numbers are accessible to anyone who may need them
  • Discuss the potential symptoms so everyone knows what to look out for 
  • Have numbers of your mental health peers and community members available for family members to use if issues arise
  • Keep everyone up to date on any medications you are taking or therapies you are participating in so they can help you stick to your recovery plan

So, Your Family Doesn’t Quite Get It. But Don’t Give Up Hope Yet

If your family is willing to support you and heal with you, you’ll have valuable allies and a better sense of security in navigating your mental health issues. But your well-being must come first. If explaining your mental health to your family only exacerbates the issues you’re already dealing with, you may find it frustrating and counterproductive.

So what happens when the family has trouble understanding and adapting? Ultimately, you have to protect your peace. If you’ve done all you can for the moment, you just have to focus on yourself and your trajectory of recovery. 

But that doesn’t mean the conversation is useless. You’ll have planted a seed, and sometimes that’s what it takes for the family to come around and try to get more informed and involved eventually.

Bringing your family into something as personal and vulnerable as mental health recovery may feel like a risk, but opening up your world to them can make a huge difference for all of you. We often thrive better when we thrive together.

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