How to Tell Your Parents You Need Mental Health Care
“I’m afraid to tell my parents that I need help. What should I do?
Ufff. Such a good question. As if it wasn’t tough enough to realize that you’re struggling. Now you have to find the right words to tell Mom, Dad, or some other decision-making adult in your life that you need help — and then deal with their emotions about it. You’re afraid they’ll get upset, or overreact, or dismiss what you’re feeling as “just a phase.” Maybe they’re part of the problem. Seriously?!?
Yes, all of that is possible. But it’s important to remember that, while talking to your parents can be hard, the effort is totally worth it. No matter what you’re going through, you deserve to feel better. There’s nothing wrong with asking for support. Having an adult ally in your court — someone who can advocate for you and at least try to understand — is an important step toward getting the care you need. Start building your very own support team by giving a parent or guardian the opportunity to be there for you. If you’re under 18 (or older and covered by their health insurance), you may also need their consent to see a doctor or a therapist.
Not sure where to begin? Here are five tips for talking to your parents about mental health.
1. Think about what you feel comfortable sharing before having the talk.
Make a list of what’s bothering you. Decide what you’d like to discuss ahead of time. You do not have to tell your parent or guardian your innermost secrets, but you can if you want to. You do want to be ready to describe at least two or three specific things that are really upsetting you — and how those experiences are negatively affecting your life. Have you lost interest in friends or activities you used to enjoy? Are your grades, your job performance, or your physical health suffering? Do you feel unsafe, as if someone wants to hurt you (or you want to hurt yourself)? Whatever you plan to share, be sure to include that you are worried about your own well-being.
2. Set aside an undistracted time that works for them and you.
It’s impossible to have a serious conversation when the other person is distracted. You also want to avoid feeling pressured or rushed. Carve out a time that works for both of you, when you can turn off your devices and discuss your situation in private.
You don’t have to say much to get things going. Try suggesting what’d work best for you, such as:
“It’s super nice out. Do you have time this afternoon to take a walk? I’d really like to talk.”
“Hey, are you available Thursday after work to talk about some personal things I’m struggling with?”
“Could we spend some time together, just you and me, on Saturday? I need to talk.”
If a face-to-face convo is way outside your comfort zone, consider sending a text, an email, or a handwritten note.
3. Ask for their support.
After you share what’s bothering you, seek your parent or guardian’s assistance making an appointment with a mental health professional. If they resist or reject the idea, ask them why. Most resistance will be because of reasons related to them, not you. For starters, it’s possible that your parents will not have the same understanding of mental health as you do. Communicating your needs and concerns clearly and openly can help.
“Explain that you’d like to get help from outside sources, that it’s worth trying if it will make you feel better,” says Kevin, who sought care as a young adult in New York. “Predict the reasons why they might not want you to do it — financial, stigma, time — and think of logical answers beforehand to prepare yourself. If they really don’t get it, because ‘at my age we didn’t have to do that,’ it’s good to remind them that times change. Modern problems require modern solutions.”
You could stress that you’d like to figure things out on your own, supported by a therapist with experience helping teens and young adults. Tell your parent or guardian that their unconditional support would mean a lot to you. You also may want to offer ways that they can help, to steer their energy in the right direction.
4. Share resources to educate them.
Misleading stereotypes and stigmas about mental health can discourage people from seeking help. The truth is that what you’re going through is pretty common: About 20% of young people across the U.S. cope with mental health issues. (That’s more than double the rate of kids dealing with asthma, which most folks would not hesitate to treat.) Studies show that therapy benefits the majority of people who engage in it.
Choose resources that you think your parents can relate to. The organization NAMI offers mental health information for families that’s based on the needs and experiences of different communities—Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander—and in seven languages, including Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Money may also be a concern, which is legit. Maybe you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to pay out of pocket. If so, suggest looking at the low- and no-cost therapy options. For example, Strong 365’s NYWell program offers free therapist and peer support for New Yorkers at nywell.strong365.org. Outside of New York, free, confidential 24/7 support from trained listeners are available 24/7 through the Strong 365 peer chat community 7 Cups website (enter the code “strong” to get started).
5. Find an alternate ally.
If your parent or guardian just doesn’t get it—despite several attempts to convince them—or you suspect they’re part of the problem, check in with another adult you trust. This could be your auntie, your next-door neighbor, your favorite teacher, your guidance counselor or school social worker, or even your boss. Or you could connect with a peer mentor (someone who’s been there) or a licensed therapist online to get the conversation started.
Anyone who cares about you can support you. Brandon confided in his boss in California. “I would let a person who is struggling with symptoms of mental illness know that there will be better times and tell them to get support,” he says, “because that support will be the foundation of your recovery.”