Telling about a mental disorder

Even today, it may feel difficult to tell friends and family members about having a mental disorder as people often lack knowledge of mental health problems. Perceptions of mental disorders are often based on past ignorance, poor treatment methods and negative attitudes.

We all must decide for ourselves whether we want to tell our friends and families about the diagnosed mental disorder. In the end, it is often easier to tell about the disorder than to remain quiet, especially if the disorder causes symptoms that are for everyone to see. It may be a relief to the people close to you to understand what is happening. It is also a good idea to inform families and friends about the different treatment methods.

Telling children

Mental disorders should not be hidden from your own children, because they will notice the changed situation and react to it by, for example, being scared and worried. If children do not know what is happening, they often blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Mental disorders should be explained to the child in your own words, taking the age and level of development of the child into consideration. It is particularly important to tell the child how the disorder will affect the parent’s behaviour. You may say, for instance, “mom is suffering from depression, which is a bit like a sleeping sickness, she feels tired all the time.”

You should tell your children about the issues associated with the mental disorder, instead of waiting for them to have questions. For example, it is good to tell them about the different ways the mental disorder manifests itself, how it affects things and that the parent is taking medication and receives other treatment for the mental health problem. You can tell children that it is okay to ask if something about their parent’s behaviour is worrying them. It is essential that children be allowed to talk about the issue if they feel like it.

If the atmosphere at home is unhappy, it is important that children have friends and hobbies outside the home to make them feel good. For example, when a family member is suffering from depression, it almost inevitably reduces the social life of the household. Children should be reminded that they are entitled to be children and live their own lives, regardless of their parent’s illness.

Checklist for telling a child about a mental disorder

  • Tell the child how your disorder affects his/her everyday life (parent’s crying, tiredness, sadness…)
  • Tell the child that he/she had no control over the onset of the disorder
  • Explain that you are receiving treatment for the condition
  • Remind the child that it is okay to ask about the disorder later if he/she feels like it
  • Tell the child that he/she should not worry about their parent; instead, encourage him/her to just enjoy their hobbies and the company of their friends as usual

Telling your own parents

Many people find it very difficult to tell about a mental disorder to their own parents. Sometimes this is because of the parents’ attitudes, whether real or imaginary, towards the diagnosed mental health problem, and sometimes because the person is afraid his/her parents will blame themselves for the onset of the disorder.

If there is an opportunity or need to tell about the mental disorder to your parents, choose a quiet moment and allow time for questions. Parents should be reminded that no one is responsible for the disorder and that it is often the result of many different factors. There usually is not one single cause for mental disorders, excluding head injuries caused by car accidents, for example.

Genotype, prenatal events and events during birth, the surrounding society, the quality of personal relationships, physical illnesses and incidents in life are just some of the factors that affect the development of disorders. To a great extent, the causes for mental disorders still remain unknown.

It is good to tell your parents that there is treatment available for the disorder, as well as explain how the disorder may affect your life. We are all experts in our own mental disorders and no one knows better how the disorder affects our lives.

Although the most important thing is to explain to your parents how you experience your mental disorder, you may want to leave some literature on the subject with them, or for example tell them about certain Internet pages, in order for them to familiarise themselves with the subject on their own time. If it is necessary to tell them, but feels difficult, you can take a friend with you, someone who already knows about the disorder. The constructive and calm attitude of your friend may make the situation easier.

Stigma

Stigma or labelling is discrimination based on, for example, an illness, disability, appearance, etc. A stigmatised person is subjected to prejudice and denigration. Stigma may, for example, lead to discrimination when applying for a job, difficulties in issuing a health insurance or suspicion expressed by friends. The fear of becoming labelled may prevent the person from seeking treatment or telling about his/her disorder to anyone.

On a societal level, stigma can be reduced by influencing knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. Stigma is largely explained by lack of knowledge and myths concerning certain illnesses.  For example, knowledge of depression and its prevalence has increased, and thus understanding of the disease is now more accurate. Nowadays, people speak more openly about depression; depression has become one disease among many. 

Mental health organisations work against stigmatisation, but every person suffering from a mental disorder can affect the existence of stigmas in our society. Here are some ways:

  • As the disorder does not fully define you, do not define yourself through the disorder: Instead of saying that you are a schizophrenic, you may say that you are suffering from schizophrenia.
  • If you notice derogatory or questionable expressions about people suffering from mental disorders in the television or newspapers, for example, send them feedback. Similarly, you can send them feedback on articles that were well written.
  • Do not let the fear of stigma affect you, seek necessary treatment and try to surround yourself with people who care, such as the ones found in peer support groups. No one should be excluded socially because of a mental disorder.

Each person can do as much as he/she wants to and is able to. No one has to fight against stigmatisation, for example by talking about his/her own illness in various contexts. However, some people choose to go down that road probably because they know that speaking about the disorder in public helps others in the same situation, or because they want to modify erroneous and generalised perceptions about people suffering from certain disorders.