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How to Tell Your Loved Ones About Your Mental Illness

Opening up to family and friends about your mental health can be difficult, but it's important to tell them in your own way so they can offer support as you work toward getting healthy.

Mental illnesses are caused by a myriad of influencers—such as genetics, environments, and lifestyles—and affect the way in which people foster relationships, handle their emotions, and function on a daily basis. As living with a mental health condition influences a person’s health, well-being, and functionality, it’s important for those with mental illnesses to consider disclosing their conditions to friends and family.

While it may be difficult to open up about mental illnesses, telling others provides them a better understanding of your condition and allows them to offer appropriate support and help. There’s certainly no formula for deciding which people to share this information with, but keep in mind you have the power to determine which relationships will benefit from disclosing your condition. If you don’t feel comfortable telling your family about your mental illness, but know you can benefit by telling a few of your close friends, follow your instincts and wait to tell your family when you decide you’re more comfortable. Remain an advocate for yourself and tell yourself that you are an expert on your own illness and can appropriately determine which people in your life to tell.

If you’re struggling with determining how to tell your loved ones about your mental illness, here are three approaches you can take to begin the conversation.

The Process Approach

Approaching the conversation as a process helps prepare your loved one to listen better. This approach also allows you to control the shape of the discussion and allows you to disclose information at the pace you feel comfortable. Having more control over the conversation can also help alleviate some anxiety.

If you’re not sure where to begin, try saying: “There’s something important I need to talk to you about, but I’m not sure how to convey it, so please be patient. I feel really vulnerable, so I’d really appreciate if you take this seriously and really listen.”

The Concrete Approach

Sometimes it’s difficult for people without mental illnesses to understand conditions and provide sympathy. Even people who do have experiences with or understandings of mental illnesses might not understand your specific condition. As no one can experience your illness the same way you do, it can prove beneficial to explain it in more concrete ways. Doing so can help your loved ones better understand and enable them the opportunity to provide the best support they can.

Consider sharing concrete examples of how your mental illness feels or impacts your daily life. For example: “Sometimes I don’t have the motivation to do anything. The hobbies that usually bring me joy don’t, and I can’t find the energy to really put myself into my work. Sometimes this feeling is triggered by events, but other times it hits me at random with no explanation.”

Support-Seeking Approach

Let your loved ones know that you’re disclosing information about your illness because you’re specifically looking for their help. With this approach, you’re not only sharing your mental illness, you’re also inviting your loved ones in and providing them with ways they can actively support you and their relationship with you.

In this conversation, you might consider saying: “When I get anxious, I might become irritable or upset. If I take it out on you, can you make a note of what I’m doing instead of becoming angry in response? I just need some space for a bit, and once I’ve calmed down, we can discuss how we both handled the situation and come up with ways we can improve or remedy it in the future.”

While telling your loved ones about your mental illness might appear to be a daunting task, you only have to talk with those who you think will offer you the positive support you need and disclose only the parts of your experience that you feel comfortable sharing. As you begin telling more of your loved ones about your mental illness, you’ll be able to build out a strong support system of people who are willing to help and support you.

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Herrick Lipton is the CEO of New Horizon Counseling Center in New York and is also an advocate for mental health. For more information about Herrick or to get in touch with New Horizon Counseling Center for resources, please visit nhcc.us or call 718-845-2620.

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