How to Talk About Your Mental Illness With a Loved One

The scariest part of your mental health journey can often be talking to others about it. When I first learned about my social anxiety and depression, I was tempted to bottle it up and keep it a secret. I was afraid that my friends and family would judge me or wouldn’t understand what I was going through. Before long, I realized I couldn’t do it alone. I needed people I love and trust to support me through the bad days and cheer me on through the good days. It was essential to my mental health. When I finally opened up to people I trusted about my anxiety and depression, I was able to form a support network that kept me afloat when it felt like my world was caving in.

If you’re wondering where to begin, you’re not alone. I was scared when I started telling my friends and family about my anxiety and depression, too. That fear never really goes away, but it does get easier. Here’s how I do it:

Determine who you trust

Not everyone needs to know about your illness, and you don’t owe anyone anything based on your relationship with that person. This is your mental health. Who you tell is up to you and you alone.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before telling someone about your mental illness: Do I trust this person completely? Do I feel emotionally safe with them? Do they trust me? Do they need to know about my mental illness? Are they able to help and willing to learn about my mental illness?

If you can answer yes to these four questions, then this person is probably someone you can confide in.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking with any loved ones or close friends, don’t. I would instead encourage you to seek help from a professional.

Explaining your illness

When you’ve found someone who you feel safe with, the leadup to the conversation can feel scary. On the flip side, telling someone about your illness can be one of the most freeing things in the world. It’s a crucial step in forming a strong base of support that can lift you up when you are feeling your worst.

I’ve found that there are three main steps to a smooth disclosure:

The “introductory talk”:

When I was learning how to write a persuasive essay, the best piece of advice I heard was: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.”

This part, the “introductory talk,” is the part where you tell your loved one “what you’re going to tell them.” It’s essentially talking about talking. It goes something like this:“Hey, so, I’d like to tell you what’s going on with me. There’s something that’s been really bothering me, and I’m really nervous to tell you about it. Will you hear me out?”

Explain your specific situation:

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. In fact, I’ve found it’s best to just be blunt. Something like, “I have anxiety,” or “I have depression” is enough. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

If you can, try to be even more specific about how your mental illness affects you. This will give your loved one something concrete to grasp:

  • “I have anxiety. For me, that means that my brain misinterprets normal situations as life-or-death scenarios.”
  • “I have depression. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and sometimes I don’t want to go out or do anything. It’s starting to hurt my work/school and is making me feel really scared and out of control. That’s why I’ve been really distant lately.”
  • “I have bipolar disorder. Some days are really good, and some days are really bad. Most of the time I don’t feel as if I’m in control, but I’m trying my best to get help.”

Offer ways they can help:

This new information might be overwhelming for your loved one. Often, it’s just as scary for them as it is for you. The first thing they may think is: “How can I help?”

Give them some simple ways that they can support you. Ask them to be patient with you when you’re sad, to remind you beforehand of plans so you have plenty of time to prepare (or bail, if you need to), to check in with you about your self-care, or to help you make an appointment with a therapist. Saying something simple and clear like, “Please don’t be upset with me if I bail out on our social plans. Sometimes my illness keeps me from being able to follow through” will be helpful. These will be unique to you, but try to make them as specific and tangible as possible.

The aftermath

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a loved one may react badly to your disclosure. They may fail to understand your illness or fail to empathize with how you feel about it. I’ve had it happen on several occasions, and it can be frustrating. In my experience, there are two ways you can handle the situation: Try to educate the person further about what your illness means for you, or agree to disagree.

Sometimes people will ask questions or express concern. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re judging you. Stay calm and address their concerns as best you can. If they refuse to understand or empathize, politely leave and distance yourself from that person until you’ve had some time to heal.

Not everyone will get what it’s like to be you, and that’s okay. But opening up to others is the first step to finding a supportive community. Once you’ve jumped this hurdle, you can focus on healing and learning how to enjoy life again — even with your mental illness.

Telling others about my depression and anxiety was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but it was also one of the most rewarding. Oftentimes, people are more receptive than you might think. I know that once I began opening up to the people close to me, they were more than happy to help me process what I was going through. It made me a happier, stronger, better person. I’m still here. Anxiety hasn’t won. Depression hasn’t won. I have my support base to partially thank for that.

You are so brave and so strong. You’re not alone. You’re doing the best you can.

It will be okay.

Originally published on September 19, 2017.

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