Guest Post: Talking about Mental Health with ‘Traditional’ Parents

“As long as I am working and able to send money back home, I am fine”, my mom said. She is a first-generation immigrant who has been living in Canada for over 30 years. This was her response to talking about recent life stressors including money, family and work. Like other parental figures, my mother has this one traditional-like belief about mental wellness. Namely, “If you are physically okay, you don’t need to get checked”

What if you parents are traditional and don't believe in mental illness?

I do not think that this mindset always comes from an uncaring individual. I think there is so much more to this statement than what there is at face value.

For some, I think about the places where people were brought up. In some countries, privatization makes healthcare inaccessible. This is true for those who are not able to pay out of pocket. So, for treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or a cocktail of anti-psychotics, these are not readily available options for the marginalized.

Even if they were, some cultures teach how mental illnesses are evil spirits to be removed by a ceremony. Or there is also the understanding that a ‘physical’ problem must be treated with a ‘physical’ treatment and the same goes for a mental illness. Therefore, a tumor in the breast can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. However, with a mental illness, medications like antidepressants or mood stabilizers are not readily accepted. If parents such as mine were open to talking about mental health treatments, they would be looking more at psychotherapy or support groups.

There is also the perception of mental illnesses being easily treated – by just changing a mindset. It goes back to the idea that if a person is not bringing harm to others, nor are they at risk of anything, they are ‘okay’. I know that when I was in elementary and secondary school from the early 2000s, mental illnesses were never discussed. There was little to no education about what they were and how you could support others who are diagnosed with one. It is only recently, where there are more awareness campaigns and initiatives to legitimatize the perception of mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, with ‘positive’ publicity also comes ‘negative’ ones. Often, my parents and I see stories in the social media of violent acts of murder and suicide. When there is word of mental illness, there comes misguided generalizations. Some prejudice statements I have heard include ALL people with mental illness(es) are violent, manipulative, attention-seeking and overly emotional human beings. In fact, I have also heard people say that if you talk about suicide with others, they are more likely to kill themselves. The reasoning for this statement was that you had ‘planted’ the idea in their mind, otherwise they would have never thought of it.

They do not have to agree with you, but keeping them aware of what you are going through will hopefully help minimize the risk of distancing.png

Talking about mental illnesses within families, are difficult. Though there are times where I wish my mom would be able to understand how I see mental illnesses, I know there are a lot of barriers to her understanding it. Even when I persist in talking about them with her, there are a few things I try to keep in mind.

  1. The goal is not to change how they think about mental illness. If you do happen to accomplish this, think of it as a bonus. Strive to have them accept and respect your own perception of mental illness. They do not have to agree with you, but keeping them aware of what you are going through will hopefully help minimize the risk of distancing.

  2. Focus on how you feel about the situation, NOT on how they are reacting. Sometimes it is easier for a person to support another when they feel like they are not being blamed or put at fault for something beyond their control.

  3. Accept that not everyone is open-minded. My mom will probably never think of depression or anxiety as family issues we should be concerned with. She will probably still call suicide as one having a ‘crazy idea’. The most we can do is just look out for one another and respect that we are different.

Having the conversation about mental illness is not something comfortable to talk about – especially with parents like my mom. But it is better to have one, whenever it may be, than to be silent about it.