5 tips for explaining your mental illness to loved ones

Family, Mental Health / Thursday, February 8th, 2018

I’ve found that once you start talking about mental illness, it becomes easier and easier. Taking the first step can be the most difficult, I started by talking to other people who also struggle with things like depression or anxiety. It’s so much easier to talk to someone who has been in your position or who understands that your thoughts aren’t really your’s sometimes. In the last few months, I’ve journeyed into talking to my loved ones who haven’t had experience with depressive episodes or panic attacks. It can be a difficult subject to talk about, but not talking about it is worse.

Here’s what I’ve learned while discussing my special brand of mental illness with the people I care about:

Tell them what you need from them

Many of the people in my life are “fixers.” They see a problem and they want to find a solution. Depression and anxiety don’t have permanent solutions and what works to stop a panic attack one day may not work the next. Even if you don’t always know what you need, coach them through it when you can. It can be as simple as asking them to be there. 


Explain it often and as simply as you can

You are the only one inside your head. Your loved ones don’t see the mental tug of war that is going on in there, and they may even forget that you are struggling. On the other hand, some people may feel they need to check up on you often, assuming there is something wrong at the slightest sign of sadness or worry. I’ve found that it is helpful to them, and myself, to explain what you’re feeling (and why, if you know). Depression doesn’t always have a reason, most mental illness don’t respond the “cause and effect,” as least not as many people see it. Instead of dismissing your struggle to get out of bed in the morning as “I was just tired,” it’s okay to explain it as it was; “Getting out of bed felt too difficult today.”

I discussed this in my Facebook support group (you can join here) and got a great response for explaining depression in a way that makes it easier to understand;

My explanation of depression is to compare color with black and white TV. All of my life, I had a black and white TV. It was what I knew and I believed everyone else was watching the same images. Then my picture began to deteriorate to where I couldn’t see anything clearly. I took my TV to the shop where they did some tests and found out that it was really messed up. When the repairs were complete, I learned what color TV with sharp focus was like. I had never seen color TV before. I used those repairs (meds) for a couple of years then weaned off them but the colors gradually faded to black and white. At the first sign of blurring of my monochrome view, I realized what was wrong and went to the same shop for the same fix.

Tell them what works and what doesn’t

It takes a lot of trial and error on our own to figure out how to deal with our own mental states, but to then ask for help, it can add another level of stress when the person we’ve reached out to doesn’t know how to help. I’ve been working on a spread in my bullet journal for this reason (seriously, if you haven’t tried bullet journaling yet, read my post about it, it’s life changing!). It includes things that help me come out of a panic attack (essential oils, long hugs), routine care (shower, drink water, crafts), and crisis care (taking a walk, napping, phrases that make me feels safe). These are all things that help me in the short term and long term, and having them all written down in one place where I can find them, or if I can’t bring myself to it, my husband can find them. Giving your loved ones direction when you are in a good mindset will benefit everyone when you’re too paralyzed to help yourself.

Knowing what works is only one part of the equation though. You have to also be open about what doesn’t workMaybe you’ve been isolating yourself and your loved one invited a few friends over, thinking it would help bring you back to “normal.” Their intentions were good, but maybe it made you feel worse. It’s not a good idea to have a serious discussion when your emotions are high, once you’ve reached a better state of mind, explain that you understand and appreciate why they did the thing they did, but that it made you feel ___________. I’ve had a few people tell me they don’t want their loved one to think that they are ungrateful for the help or to get upset and give up trying to help. Phrasing is extremely important, if you’re open and honest but kind with your words, someone who truly wants to help you will take it to heart.

Be understanding

When you have a mental illness, you struggle with being understood. For someone who hasn’t had to breathe through a panic attack, it can be difficult to comprehend why you’re worrying about something small or unrealistic. For some time, I didn’t tell anyone that I was depressed. When I finally told my husband, his first reaction was to ask if I was unhappy with him, and what he could do to fix it. To the “average” person, mental illnesses don’t make sense, so when they’re faced with trying to figure out what it means, they may ask a lot of questions, they may get upset, their reactions may not be what you expected. It is truly important to be understanding, you’ve had time to adjust to your mental illness, this is new to them. Remember how frustrating it can be when someone doesn’t try to understand how you feel and give them time to get used to it.

Be honest

Most importantly, be honest. Don’t hide behind “I’m fine’s” and “I’m just tired.” The people that love and care about you need to know the truth. Pretending you’re okay when you’re not is only going to make everything so much harder. Be open about how you feel, what you think and what you need. Ask that your loved ones are honest with you too.

Think of yourselves as a team, fighting against whatever mental illness you’re dealing with. A team has to work together with open, honest communication, understanding and trust. The stronger your team is, the more defenses you have against your enemy.

What recommendations do you have for talking about mental illness with loved ones? Do you have a great support team behind you? If you’re looking for more support (and who isn’t?) you can join my Facebook group, “We’re in this together – a community to encourage mental wellness & balance.”