How to Talk about Depression with Your Family
Talking to your family about depression is not always easy, especially if there is nobody else in the family who is dealing with depression already. I’ll tell you about my experience and give you a few tips. Just know that it won’t be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, but it also won’t be the hardest thing either. Sometimes you will have to talk to them several times and sometimes they just may never understand, but be patient with them and know that you need to do this for your own well-being.
I can remember as a child being overly sensitive about certain things and crying a lot. My mom says that even as a baby, I cried a lot, but she always attributed it to my inability to process baby formula and frequent stomach problems. As I grew older, I was a sensitive child and most of my family attributed it to my shyness and nobody really had a name for what I was going through. I can remember one particular evening – I was maybe 6 or 7 – when my parents started talking about moving to a new house. I’m not sure if they were really serious, but it was the topic of the evening at the dinner table. I lost it. I cried and screamed and I remember feeling terrified that we would be moving, even though they were only talking about across town, not a new school or anything like that. My parents didn’t know what was going on with me and I was sent to my room to calm down and then they told me they weren’t really going to move us. They were just thinking about it. I can almost remember the looks on their faces when I was crying and it was confusion and some worry. Of course, there was some anger at my “temper tantrum”, but the confusion stands out for me. I was a quiet little girl so to hear my screaming was unusual.
I think that is my earliest memory of any inkling of my depression diagnosis.
There’s really not much more to tell about my story until my parents divorced when I was 18, but that’s a story for another time. Let’s just say that my “true” depression came out at that time. I say “true” depression because it’s when I truly felt depressed in the traditional sense. I was sad and tearful, angry and tired. I still didn’t have a word for it – that didn’t come until college – but I knew I was feeling something different. I wasn’t just “sad” because my parents divorced. I was drained of all sense of stability in my mental health and I didn’t know what to do with it.
Since I didn’t have a word for it and “life moves on”, I just moved along with it and went off to college. I struggled (a whole other post) and finally when I was about 22 I got a word for it. I was depressed. I had been for a very long time and things came to a head. I started to get treatment in the form of medication and therapy and things in life started to make sense.
But, then I had to tell my family about my lifelong diagnosis.
Depression is hard to define to a family of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kinda folks. It’s difficult to explain that you’re more than just a little “sad”. It’s almost impossible to make them understand that a “blue day” lasts for weeks at a time and is more “black and gray” than “blue”.
Here are my tips for how to talk about depression with your friends and family:
Choose who to talk with first
Certain family members are going to be more open to this type of discussion than others. You probably already know who you can talk openly with and with whom you are fearful of having this conversation. For me, my little sister always understood me and just “got it” when I talked to her. My dad was open to listening, but he didn’t really understand. My best friend was the best listener and whether she understood or not, she was just there. I don’t remember being scared of talking with any particular person, but I knew the order of who to talk with first, second, and so on.
Decide how much you want to share
Sharing every grisly detail of your depression is not necessary. You can if you just want to, but this is likely going to overwhelm the person you are talking with and may shut some people down. Decide on what details you want to share and how far back in your life you want to dive into with each person. If you are like me and have years upon years of depression building in your life, you probably want to limit that so as not to offend someone who may feel guilty for not “seeing” it in the past.
Talk with your therapist about your motivation to share
Are you sharing about your depression because you want to rub the dirty details in someone’s face or are you genuinely wanting the help and support that your family and friends can provide? Are you motivated by attention-seeking behaviors or do you truly need the help and support? Don’t do this step on your own, but rather determine your motivation either with a therapist or an accountability partner. You need a safe place to do this so you will not sink yourself further into your depression.
Know when/where you want to bring it up
You probably don’t want to drop this information in the middle of dinner at your sister’s engagement party or at your parents’ anniversary dinner. You want to pick a time when you have enough time to talk without distractions and the person you are talking with will be open to a real discussion. Consider asking the person out to lunch to talk or asking the person to take a walk with you. Make sure the person knows that you have something on your mind and you need to talk about it, but don’t sound too ominous or that person may want to push you for the details sooner rather than later.
Your friends and family may not understand all of what you are going through right away. They may have questions and concerns they want to voice as well. Some people may get defensive, while others may want to help “fix” you. Be patient with each person as they process what they are hearing about their loved one – you – and determine how they will respond. Be patient with yourself if you lose your words or can’t think of a way to express yourself when you’re actually in the moment. Hopefully, all the preparation will help with that, but there are times when you may just forget what you were going to say and go on a rabbit trail. It’s okay to not know the exact words for what you are feeling. Hopefully, you are doing this early in your depression diagnosis so you may not fully understand it for yourself yet.
However you do it, whenever you do it, in order to talk about depression with your family, you have to be brave and know the message you want to get across. Again, are you needing help and support or are you just providing this as information for your family to know what is going on with you? Be prepared for lots of questions, maybe tears and hugs, possibly anger and defensiveness. Your family is either hearing this for the first time or they have known long before you and are happy that you are finally realizing it, too. Give them – and yourself – time to process it all and you’ll feel good about it once it is done.