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Talking about… talking to your family

Talking to family about our mental health can be really difficult. It can be daunting to start a conversation about it, and even tougher to help them understand. But we also know starting the conversation has loads of potential benefits — most importantly increased support and reassurance. And when you’re deep in anxiety or depression, this extra support can really make a huge difference.

We all know the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’. But it’s that closeness within a family – and the complicated nature of our relationships with them – that can make talking to your family about mental health really difficult. As we help launch the short film “Brothers”, written and directed by Huse Monfaradi and inspired by the real life experiences of one of the film’s lead actors Michael Workeye and his relationship with his older brothers mental health struggles – we wanted to share some tips and advice on both how to talk to your family if you’re struggling, as well as how to reach out to a family member if you’re worried about them…

“I feel if I’d watched this film at that time it would have been incredibly helpful with me just feeling able to function, with me just feeling OK with the fact that a family member or a friend is going through this thing and not feeling swept up and lost by everything and the immense amount of guilt you feel by calling for help because you don’t know whether that help is actually going to hinder them or help them.”

Michael Workeye

We know families come in all shapes and sizes and your situation will be unique, but these should help.

How to talk to your family if you’re struggling…

We know it can sometimes be really tough to talk about your feelings with family. It makes sense – it’s common to feel worried about upsetting those you care about, and nervous about what they will think, or how it might affect your relationships with them. But the people closest to us can often be the most valuable source of support. People with more social support may be over 30% less likely to have a lifetime suicide attempt than those with a lower level of social support. So it really can make a difference.

But we know it can be tricky to open up to close family for loads of reasons. They often want to ‘fix you’ and stop you from feeling the way you do – and, even though that’s a natural feeling and comes from a good place, it doesn’t help. Because there’s never really a quick fix or easy answer to what you’re going through.

So how can you help them understand what you’re going through? Here’s some ideas that can help: 

  • Be honest and open. It can feel uncomfortable sharing something so personal with people you’re really close to, but explaining how your feelings are affecting your life and what you’re going through can be a really effective way of helping them understand it. Share resources or info you have as well as links to websites you think they’ll find useful. 
  • Rehearse what you want to say. Practise what you want to say in your head, or make some notes. That way it won’t be so intimidating when you actually speak to them. If you’re finding it tricky to work out where to start, a phrase like “I’m finding it hard to cope at the moment” can help give you an ‘in’ to start.
  • Get Comfortable – being in a comfortable and familiar environment will help ease any nerves and make you feel safe. And if doing it face-to-face is too daunting then find a communication method that’s most comfortable, whether it’s a phone call, text or writing a letter. It’s about what works best for you. 
  • What’s your ask? Think of what you want from the chat. Having an idea of what you want to walk away from the conversation with gives you structure and direction. Your “ask” is the thing you would like most from them. Whether that’s more emotional support or to help you with some everyday tasks when you’re struggling. It might even be as simple as just listening to you right now. It’s completely up to you.
  • Don’t expect too much from one conversation. Understanding mental health problems can take time, and some of your family may be shocked or may not react in exactly the way you want at first. But they’re on your side and it’s important to give them some time to process what you’ve told them.

Opening up about your struggles with your family is not an easy thing to do. But starting that conversation can be the start of getting the support you need. By helping them better understand and support you, you’re giving you – and them – the best chance of doing that.

How to talk to a family member if you think they’re struggling…

If you’re worried about a family member how do you start the conversation with them? How do you encourage them to talk to you or to seek help from someone else? 

We know it can be tricky to talk to them about these really sensitive issues. But many people experiencing a mental health problem will speak to friends and family before they speak to a health professional, so the support you offer can be really valuable. 

68% of people with severe mental illness disclosed to at least one ‘network member’ (that’s family member or mate to me and you). 

What if someone doesn’t want my help?

We know that people suffering a mental health crisis often don’t recognise that they’re ill or in need of help – that obviously adds to the trauma when you’re seeing this happen in front of you and makes it difficult to have a conversation about it. 

It’s in our nature to want to help them and make them feel better. But the truth is that in most cases you can’t make people get help if they don’t want it. They are an individual and, even though it may be tough for you, they need to make their own decisions.

Acknowledging those difficulties, and just being there for them, is most important. And there are things you can do to show you’ve got their back:

  • Be patient. Don’t try to diagnose or second guess their feelings. Try not to make assumptions about what is wrong or jump in too quickly with your own diagnosis or solutions. You won’t always know the full story, and there may be reasons why they are finding it difficult to ask for help.
  • Be there for them. It sounds simple but listen to them. Then at the right time ask questions and be responsive. Offer to help them with everyday tasks to take some of the burden away.
  • Reassure them. Let them know that you care about them. Offer emotional support. And if they don’t want to talk about everything now, then let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready to. Like you see in Brothers, a lot of people in psychiatric care can often develop a ‘Me vs them’ perspective and it’s important to try and emphasise the ‘I’m on your team’ vibe so that you don’t become one of ‘them’ to your family member.

“We need to try and get more clarity on what the things are that need to happen when someone is experiencing a psychotic breakdown or just showing signs that they’re not being who they usually are without panicking or doing something that ultimately leads to more trauma.”

Michael

We know you can feel powerless in these situations – and that sitting by and doing nothing doesn’t feel like an option. Like in Brothers you may feel guilt for trying to get them help, or do the best thing for them. But you shouldn’t. And, remember, if you’re worried about someone you can always call our helpline and we’ll help you work out a plan. 

WATCH “BROTHERS”

Remember, if you’re struggling or need advice, talk to us. We’re here every day, 5pm-midnight, whatever you’re going through with free, confidential and practical support. Call us on 0800 58 58 58 or through our webchat.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

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