Mental health stigma harms the 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. It shames them into silence and prevents them from seeking help. Talking about mental health helps other feel safe and less alone and helps to end stigma.
What To Say About Your Mental Health
Some of us are open and honest with our close friends about our challenges and feelings, and some of us are more private. There is no “right” way to share what you’re going through — every friendship or relationship is different. Sharing more about your personal life may help you feel closer to people, but it may also open the possibility of your friend sharing information with others against your wishes.
When it comes to sharing information about your mental health, it’s important to decide in advance what you’re most comfortable with. It may be helpful also to consider why you want to share the information, for example:
- To show that you have common experiences with someone
- To ask for help
- To gain empathy and compassion from someone
- To explain your actions or behavior
For example, if your friends invite you to a party but you are uncomfortable going because of your anxiety, it might be helpful for them to understand why you declined the invite. The same thing happens with other health conditions. If you have a food allergy, there may be certain places that don’t make sense for you to go eat.
Think about what you want to accomplish, or what you expect from your friends as a response (but be careful not try to mind-read and assume negative thoughts), before starting a conversation about your mental health. The choice is always yours about what you share and with whom you share it.
Some conversations are “bigger” than others, and it’s normal to feel uncertain or worried about sharing something personal or emotional. Before you begin a conversation about your mental health, it might be helpful to write down what you want to say or practice a few times in private. Practicing in front of a mirror can be helpful. If you are having trouble making decisions about how or what to share, you could discuss it with an adult that you trust, including your school counselor or therapist if you have one.
Remember that it’s OK to keep some details private. You don’t have to share your specific diagnosis or what kind of treatment/support you are receiving if you’re not comfortable doing so. You might want to let friends know that you are having a mental health or emotional problem and you appreciate their support while you are learning to manage it. It might be helpful to share how this impacts you and your relationship with them.
Sharing this basic information with a friend might save you some worry in the future. If you need to miss an event or change a plan because of your mental health, they’ll be more likely to understand and be supportive.
As you develop a better understanding of your mental health condition — and gain more experience discussing it — it will become easier to make decisions about who to share with and how to have those conversations.
What to Say to a Friend When You’re Concerned About Their Mental Health
Before you start the conversation, have a list of resources your friend can use to get help on hand. Open the conversation by sharing SPECIFIC signs you’ve observed.
- “I’ve noticed lately that you [haven’t been sleeping, aren’t interested in soccer anymore, which you used to love, are posting a lot of sad song lyrics online, etc.]…” If you are worried your friend is thinking about suicide, ask the direct question.
- “Are you thinking about suicide?”
- “Do you have a plan? Do you know how you would do it?”
- “When was the last time you thought about suicide?”
If your friend answers “Yes” to these questions or if you think they might be at risk of suicide, you NEED to talk to an adult you trust IMMEDIATELY , or call the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911.
Use Supportive Language
Listen, express concern, reassure. Focus on being understanding, caring and nonjudgmental.
- “You are not alone. I’m here for you.”
- “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”
“I’m concerned about you and I want you to know there is help available to get you through this.”
- “You are important to me; we will get through this together.”
What Not to Say
- Don’t promise secrecy. Say instead: “I care about you too much to keep this kind of secret. You need help and I’m here to help you get it.”
- Don’t say: “We all go through tough times like these. You’ll be fine.”
- Don’t say: “It’s all in your head. Just snap out of it.”
- Don’t ask in a way that indicates you want “No” for an answer.
- Don’t say, “You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?”
- Don’t say, “You haven’t been throwing up to lose weight have you?”
What to Say to a Parent or Trusted Adult About Your Own Mental Health Struggles
If you are struggling with your mental health — for example, if you are feeling down or nervous much of the time — it’s important to talk with your parent or guardian and let them know you need help.
Some conversations are “bigger” than others, and it’s normal to feel uncertain or worried about sharing something personal or emotional. So, how do you have this conversation?
Plan What You Want To Say: A good starting place is to think about how you will explain what you are experiencing. It can be helpful to provide a few specific examples of what you are feeling to help your parents understand. It’s helpful to write down some notes in advance to prepare for the conversation. It may be helpful to let your parents or guardian know in advance that you are going through something difficult and you’re nervous to bring it up, but you hope they can understand and help you figure out how to handle it.
Find A Private Space To Talk: Try to find a time and place where you can have some privacy, away from any other family members or distractions. See if you can take a walk or sit outside together. Ask everyone to leave their cell phones somewhere else during the conversation.
Explain As Clearly As You Can: Try to be as clear and specific as you can about what you are experiencing, and give them a chance to ask you questions. If you start feeling overwhelmed or anxious, it’s ok to pause to take some deep breaths and collect your thoughts. Try not to let your emotions get in the way of your ability to describe what is happening. Most importantly, don’t give up and walk away from the conversation. The more clearly you can describe what you’re going through, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to help you.
Discuss Possible Next Steps: It’s ok not to have a plan for what comes next — you can’t be expected to! Consider asking them if they have suggestions, or even looking at online resources together to help everyone understand what you are experiencing and for suggestions about how to find help.
Continue The Conversation: Once you have a plan in place and have taken some steps to feel better, it’s important to continue talking about this. Maintaining an open, honest line of communication with your parent or guardian is crucial to them understanding that you may need more help or support, including making decisions about speaking to the family doctor or your pediatrician for recommendations.
Options To Consider If They Are Not Supportive: Even if you do your best to explain what you are going through, there might be times when your parents or guardian don’t seem to understand or are not willing to help you get the support you need. This might be particularly true if they’ve never experienced mental health challenges themselves or don’t understand them. They may:
- Feel guilty or blame themselves for what you are experiencing
- Be concerned about the cost of getting professional help
- Have issues trusting mental health care clinicians
- Believe that emotional or mental health problems should be dealt with privately, and that they can be “fixed” through trying harder or prayer instead of professional treatment
Explain The Effort You’ve Put In: If they do not believe professional mental health care is necessary or helpful, you might start by letting them know that you have been trying to manage on your own, but you are still struggling. Ask if they’d be open to getting you more help in addition to the self-care or other techniques you have tried. In the same way that we can’t stay healthy if we eat just one kind of food and need a balanced diet, sometimes we need to take several approaches at once to get necessary emotional support.
Let Them Know There Are Resources/Affordable Options: It can be hard to find affordable mental health care in some areas. Your parents or guardian might be worried about being able to pay for your care or not know how to find a doctor or therapist. It may be helpful to offer suggestions: your school counselor, pediatrician (or other health care professional) or faith leader may be able to suggest local resources.
Talk To Someone Else In Your Family/Network: If you’ve tried speaking to your parent or guardian, but can’t seem to get through to them, try to think of someone else in your family or community who could “take your side,” either to support you directly or to speak to your parent or guardian for you.
Is there someone else in your family (like an older sibling, grandparent, uncle or aunt) who might be more understanding? Is there a close family friend or faith leader you could talk to? It can be especially helpful if this person has also experienced mental health challenges and benefitted from getting help. If you can’t think of anyone in your family or community, check if your school has a counselor or social worker. You can meet privately to speak with them and ask their advice. They may also be able to meet with your family to try to work out the differences in understanding.
Even if none of these options seem to work, don’t give up. If you have access to a mobile device or computer, you can connect to free confidential text-based support through the Crisis Text Line or other text-based support services. They can help you figure out your options.
Seize the Awkward
A helpful resource for how to have conversations about mental health.