To talk about mental health issues, it’s important that you identify what you’re struggling with. Writing down your feelings can help you get perspective. Reach out to someone who is understanding and supportive, maybe family or friends. And if you feel like you need more support, a mental health professional can help.
How to Talk About Mental Health Issues
When teens are struggling, speaking up can be hard, but reaching out is the first step to feeling better. How to get started.
Clinical Expert: Jamie Howard, PhD
What You'll Learn
- Why is it so important to talk about mental health issues?
- Who can you reach out to if you need to talk about mental health?
- What are some tips for having the conversation?
The first step to getting help is speaking up. But figuring out how to start, who to talk to, and what to say can be hard. Here are some tips that can help.
When you’re struggling, identifying what you’re feeling can help. Are you sad? Anxious? Angrier than usual? Writing feelings down can help you get a better picture of how you’re feeling. Using an online symptom checker can also help. But it’s important to remember that the results are a starting point, not a diagnosis.
When you are ready to talk, reach out to someone who you think will be understanding and supportive. Talking to friends can be a good place to start, but don’t stop there. The goal should be to find someone who can help you find treatment. When you’re ready, start a conversation with a parent or another family member. If you’re not comfortable talking to family, reach out to a trusted teacher, family friend, doctor, or community leader.
Once you’ve decided, let the person know you’d like to have an important, private conversation. If someone falls through, or the talk doesn’t go as you’d hoped, don’t stop trying. The important thing is to find someone who can help.
Once you’re ready to talk, it’s okay to take it slow. It’s okay if you’re not sure what to say or if you don’t want to share everything right away. When you do share, try to be very clear about what you’re feeling. Don’t downplay your struggles. For example, instead of saying “I’ve been feeling kind of anxious lately,” say: “I feel anxious all the time. I haven’t been able to enjoy anything. I don’t know how to make it stop. I need help.”
If you are in crisis, don’t wait. Your safety is the most important thing. Tell a parent, counselor or teacher immediately if you are having thoughts of suicide or you’re afraid you might harm yourself or others. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800.273.8255. Or go to your local emergency room.
When you’re having emotional problems, the first step to feeling better is finding a way to talk about how you’re feeling. But for a lot of us, it can be hard to speak up, and even harder to know how to approach the conversation — who to talk to and what to say.
Talking about your mental health issues may not be easy but it’s a vital part of getting the help you need. We asked Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, for advice on how to start, and navigate, the conversation.
Stigma and silence
According the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five young adults is dealing with mental illness, but as many as half are struggling in silence.
We all have reasons why it’s hard to reach out. Maybe you’ve tried before and been burned by a reaction that wasn’t helpful. Maybe you think you can’t find the words to describe what you’re feeling. The thought of sharing what you’re going through can feel scary, but the benefits far outweigh the cost.
There’s no right way or best way to talk about mental health issues, but having a plan can help make the process less overwhelming. Here are some things to help make the conversation more productive:
- Write down what you’re feeling. Are you sad? Anxious? Angrier than usual? Writing feelings down can help you get a better picture of how you’re feeling and help you organize your thoughts. You can even try writing a script to help guide you through a difficult conversation.
- Find a symptom checker online. Using an online symptom checker, like the one on childmind.org, can help you make sense of how you’re feeling and give you a place to start when talking to your parents or a therapist. Keep in mind that it’s just a starting point, not a substitute for a diagnosis from a mental health professional.
- Give a heads-up. Once you chose someone to talk to, let them know that you’d like to have a serious conversation and ask them to set some time aside. For example you could say, “Hey, there’s something I want to talk to you about. Do you have some time tomorrow to talk, just us?”
Who to talk to
“There’s no ‘right’ first person to talk to,” says Dr. Howard. “What’s important is finding someone you feel comfortable opening up with, and who you know will listen.”
- Choose your confidants. Start with people who you can rely on to be supportive early on will help you practice and gain confidence.
- Go beyond friends. Talking to friends, in person or online, is a good way to get started but there’s a limit to how much friends can help. “In the end, friends are part of the process, but they probably can’t connect you with the resources you need,” notes Dr. Howard. The goal should be to eventually find someone who can help you get the ball rolling on treatment.
- Find an adult you trust. “If you can talk to a parent, that’s great,” says Dr. Howard, “but a lot of kids are reluctant to do that for various reasons.”
Other people to talk to could include:
- A teacher or another adult you have a good relationship with at school
- Your school counselor or the school nurse
- A close family friend, relative, or another adult you feel close to
- Your pediatrician or doctor
- Your therapist, or another mental health professional
- A community or religious leader
“The important thing is to be persistent, says Dr. Howard. “Don’t stop until you find someone who can help you.”
Having the conversation
Once you’re ready to talk, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Go at your own pace. It’s okay to take it slow. Talking about mental health is more than one conversation. It’s okay if you don’t want to share everything right away.
- Don’t downplay. As a society we’re trained to make serious things seem lighter than they are but that can make it harder to get the help you need. Everyone feels “sad” or “anxious” sometimes, says Dr. Howard, so it’s important to communicate that what you’re feeling is more serious, and affecting your day-to-day life. For example, instead of saying “I’ve been anxious lately,” Dr. Howard suggests being more explicit: “I feel anxious all the time. I don’t even want to go to school. I don’t want to go out or see friends. I think I might have an anxiety disorder. I feel really alone and I need help.”
- Don’t worry about messing up. Remember that the plan doesn’t have to be perfect. “Think about what you’d like to say, if you can, but if worst comes to worst it’s okay to just say, ‘I feel awful, and I don’t know what to do,’” says Dr. Howard. “What’s important is that you’re telling people how you feel and asking for help. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you sit down with someone who can help you.”
What if people don’t respond well?
Most people will respond better than you think, but if someone doesn’t react the way you’re hoping they will, don’t be sidelined. Move on to someone else. If someone doesn’t seem to understand, it also doesn’t mean that they’ll never understand. Sometimes people just need a little time.
Building your team
A support system means having people you can rely on in different ways. A friend might be a good, accepting listener. A parent might be a good back-up for tough decisions. A mental health professional is key to getting treatment, but “it’s good to have multiple people you can confide in,” says Dr. Howard. “We do well when we have a diverse support system.”
Some other things to consider:
- Beware of too much commiseration. “Finding people who are going through similar things can be a huge help,” says Dr. Howard, but she warns that surrounding yourself with people who are constantly commiserating can often end up working against your recovery. “You have to be really careful to look for a support system that isn’t encouraging unhealthy behaviors.”
- Find your safe space. When you’re seeking support, look for communities that can speak to your identity in a holistic way. If you’re LGBTQ+ or a person of color, for instance, make sure your support group is a positive space for you.
- Avoid people who make you feel worse. Tune in to how you feel after conversations. If you notice that you tend to feel worse after talking with a particular friend or family member, they may not be the right person to confide in next time.
Once you start talking about your mental health, it’s important to set some boundaries for yourself. “You don’t want your mental health to define you,” says Dr. Howard, “so it’s important to decide who you want to talk to about it, and how much.”
- Know your audience. Being selective about who you talk to will help you stay in control of the conversation. “It should be a thoughtful selection that you’ve planned ahead for,” says Dr. Howard. For example, if you wanted to let some of your classmates know what you’re feeling, opening up during a full class discussion might not be appropriate. Instead, try asking the people you want to tell out to lunch.
- Don’t over-share. Being honest and open about your mental health is important, but it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. “It shouldn’t be the focus of every conversation,” notes Dr. Howard.
Just talking about mental health issues, even to one person, helps bust stigma and you may be surprised to find that you’re actually helping others.
Talking about mental illness is a process, but sometimes there are situations when you need to find help right away. If you are in crisis, don’t wait. Your safety is the most important thing. Tell a parent, counselor or teacher immediately if you are:
- Suicidal or having thoughts of suicide
- Afraid of causing harm to yourself or others
- In any kind of immediate danger
You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800.273.8255. Or go to your local emergency room.