Mental health: how do I talk to my parents?

Mental health: how do I talk to my parents?

83% of young people say they do not have an adult in their life who understands what they are going through

Mental illness is a medical condition that affects a person’s thinking, feelings, mood and ability to relate to others.

Fast facts about mental health

  • Half of all mental illness start at age 14.
  • One (1) in 5 South Africans suffers from a mental illness.
  • In South Africa there are 23 suicides every day with 230 attempted suicide incidents.
  • Suicide in young people between 10 and 14 has doubled over the past 15 years.
  • 60% of all addicts in Cape Town are under 20 years of age.
  • Anorexia  has the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

If a person has the ability to fulfill a number of key functions and activities which includes to be able to learn,  to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions and form and maintain good relationships with others, they are considered to be mentally healthy.

Mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning.   Mental disorders are usually defined by a combination of how a person behaves, feels, perceives, or thinks. It differs from medical illness in the sense that you cannot do a biological test (take a blood pressure or do a blood test ) to diagnose mentally illness . Mental disorders are viewed as collections of problems in rational thinking or cognition, in emotional responding or regulation and in social behavior. (Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Abnormaly Psychology, 2014).

Some of the main groups of mental disorders are:

  • Mood disorders ( depression,  bipolar disorder,  suicide)
  • Dissociative disorders ( somatic symptom, dissociative identity)
  • Personality disorders (borderline, obsessive compulsive, narcissist, paranoid)
  • Impulse control disorders (anti-social, intermittent explosive, conduct)
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders (ADHD, autism, delirium, neuro-cognitive)
  • Psychotic disorders (schizophrenia)
  • Eating disorders( anorexia, binge eating, bulimia, obesity, EDNOS)
  • Trauma & anxiety-related disorders ( PTSD, OCD, Separation anxiety, Phobias, Panic)
  • Substance abuse  & behavioural addiction disorders (drugs, gambling, internet, pornography)
  • Sexual disorders (sexual dysfunction,paraphilic, sadism, masochism, pedophilia)

(Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Abnormaly Psychology, 2014)

How do to recognize early signs of mental illness according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt.
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows.
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities.
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping.

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, talk to someone – ASAP. Mental illness can creep up on you and it wont go away by itself. It is highly treatable if you seek the right help.

Where do you start?

Mental Health America gives the following guidelines:

Talk to your parents.

Many young people feel if they should tell their parents they feel there is something wrong with them and they aren’t coping, their parents will be upset. A good question to ask yourself if you feel this way is  – if someone comes to you for help – will you care enough to want to help?

Here are some of the most common concerns people give for not talking to their parents and some tips  for overcoming them.

“I have no idea how my parents will react.”

Schedule a talk with one or both your parents in a place you will be comfortable. Plan what you want to say beforehand.  If talking is too daunting, write them a letter. Remember, the sooner you address what is troubling you, the sooner you can get help and the sooner you will feel better.

“My parents might feel unhappy or dissatisfied with me.”

Parents might find it hard not to show they are upset – but they care about you and if you are not well, they might fee sad for you. They might wonder if it was caused by something they did wrong. Some parents have very high expectations of their children. Tell them you fear they will be disappointed, but that you need help. It is something that can be talked through.

“My parents might be annoyed or not take me seriously.”

Some young people fear that parents will just dismiss what they feel and not take them seriously. Often people have little knowledge about mental disorders and do not believe it is serious and warrants treatment. Some parents  blame children for using up all medical aid benefits and then cancel appointments with mental health therapists or prescription medication. It might help in such cases to write a letter to your parents in which you tell them you fear they will be angry or dismissive. Explain you will benefit from their support. The reason behind parents that get angry or dismiss what you say, is often fear of not knowing how to react or lack of knowledge. If this doesn’t help or work out, you might have to turn to other adults in your life for help or mental health resources.

“I won’t be able to handle all their questions.”

It might be difficult to share all of what you are going through and you might feel keep some of it private and to spare your parents some of the detail. Think about what you want to share beforehand. Share what you are comfortable with. You may ask your parents to speak to a mental health professional for more help. It helps to get to a stage where you feel comfortable and safe to open up. You may choose who you want to share what you feel with.

“My parents have enough worries as it is.”

All adults have a lot of responsibilities and stress – some have more, some have less. Your well-being is important and you deserve their attention on this. Try to pick a time when things are calm. Know what you are going to share with them. If you can read up on it – do so beforehand.

“What if one or both my parents are the reason for my struggles?”

If one of your parents are part of your problem, and you feel you trust your other parent enough, explain what you feel and ask for options what you can do. You may ask that they do or do not tell the other parent what you are sharing. You can also reach out to another adult in your life that you trust, for example guidance counselors. Outside resources might help you get the help or support you need. If you are experiencing physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect, inform a trusted adult.

“My parents won’t believe me – they don’t think mental problems are real.”

Parents may find it hard to believe that you have a problem. They might just dismiss it as part of growing up. They might dismiss the entire possibility of getting professional help. Ignoring problems will not make them go away. You may continue to ask  for help. Explain why and what you need, despite their beliefs.You might have to turn to other resources for help, for example teachers, guidance counselors or trusted adults in your life. Remember if your parents do not acknowledge your issues, it doesn’t make them less important or unreal. They are real. Draw up a list of reasons why you feel you need help.  Don’t give up on getting help.


Mental Health America:


You can get more help and guidance by chatting to an online counsellor on our LIVE CHAT helpline. It is a text-based chat and you may remain anonymous.


We have a selection of quizzes on issues young people struggle with. You can learn more about an issue by completing a quiz.


Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Abnormaly Psychology, 2014


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