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Meaningful Conversations About Mental Health

A mother talks to her teen daughter about mental health issues.

Half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. But many people aren’t always comfortable talking about conditions like anxiety or depression. We can feel ashamed, weak, or afraid of adding to someone else’s burdens. There could be fear of being rejected because, in some families, mental illness is considered taboo – it’s just not talked about.

But ignoring mental illness can be dangerous. It can lead to self-harming behaviors, misuse of alcohol or drugs, or suicide.

So how can we start meaningful conversations about mental health?

Creating a Culture of Acceptance

The way to change how people think and talk about mental health is by creating a safe environment. That means having an open and respectful attitude. We can’t be judgmental about mental illness and then expect people to feel comfortable talking about it.

We should be accepting of differences and use people-centered language. Rather than label someone as “bipolar” or “schizophrenic,” we should refer to “a person with bipolar disorder” or “a person with schizophrenia.”

Conversations with Children

When talking with children, a little self-disclosure goes a long way in building trust. You don’t have to wait until you have an official diagnosis from a doctor. You can help children have meaningful conversations about mental health without getting too clinical.

For example, your child may have frequent stomachaches in the morning. You might share that you had a nervous stomach on days when there was a big test or an important game.

Or, your child might tell you that they think they have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). You could talk about a family member who has ADHD and successfully manages it.

This kind of honesty lets kids know that it’s safe to talk about their mental health concerns without being judged. It can be hard for kids to see a bright future when they are struggling in the moment with mental health issues. Hearing about positive, real-life examples can give them hope.

Some tips for talking with children and teens about mental health include:

  • Choosing a setting that encourages productive conversation. Rather than asking a casual question in between bites at dinner, pick a time and place where you can have an intentional conversation. This shows that you have sincere concerns.
  • Using “I” statements such as, “I’ve been wondering how you’re feeling since the new semester started.” This avoids putting the child on the defensive.

Keep the conversation open-ended. Realize that your child might not feel comfortable talking to you about certain things. That is okay. Let them decide who they want to talk to, with clear questions like, “Would you rather talk to mom (or dad) about this, or is there someone else you’d like to talk to?” Good options include a doctor, a school counselor, or a trusted adult or family member.

Conversations with Older Adults

Starting a mental health conversation with older family members can be challenging because you may worry about making them upset or angry. In addition, older adults tend to have more stigmas about mental health, so they may resist talking about it.

If a grandparent is depressed, for example, they may not want to admit it. They may not want to see another health care provider. Or, they could be hesitant about taking more medicine.

Some tips for talking to older adults about mental health include:

  • Making it clear that you won’t force them to do anything. Offer options with compassion, suggesting, “I want you to talk to an expert and see what they think.” When it comes to their health, older adults tend to value what doctors and professionals say more than family members.
  • Talking about mental health in the context of family history. Many older people enjoy talking about their relatives. Their stories might provide insight into family trauma or intergenerational issues that you may not be aware of. Knowing these facts can help normalize mental health issues. It can also make mental health a shared family experience that can be dealt with cooperatively.

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

Sometimes, these conversations might get uncomfortable, so be prepared. It may also take a few attempts to encourage family members to share their feelings. It’s important to keep trying. People may be more likely to talk if they see you are consistently coming from a place of caring and are keeping the lines of communication open.

Most of us have had or will have a mental health challenge in our lives. The more we can normalize meaningful conversations about mental health, the easier it will be for people to get the help they need.

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Dr. Ryan Connolly, M.D., M.S.

K. Ryan Connolly M.D., M.S. is a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director at Independence Blue Cross. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Connolly has worked to improve mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, and has published on the subject of improving outcomes in depression treatment. Dr. Connolly has received degrees from the John's Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Temple University, and completed his residency training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.