How to talk to your parents about wellbeing

It’s important to feel supported when you’re looking after your mental health and wellbeing. But if you come from a cultural background where mental health isn’t openly discussed, having a conversation with your family about how you’re feeling isn’t always easy.

What is mental health and why is it important?

Mental health is a state of emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Mental health and wellbeing are often confused with mental illness, but they’re different. Mental illness is a condition such as depression or bipolar disorder. For someone with a mental illness, managing day-to-day life can be a lot more difficult.

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing is important in the same way that keeping yourself physically healthy is: it allows you to function in your everyday life. You’re able to handle stressful situations better and be the best version of yourself.

Why is it important to talk about mental health and wellbeing with your family?

Talking openly about your mental health and wellbeing with your parents can help you to get the support you need. Niharika Hiremath, Mental Health Advocate and Commissioner with the National Mental Health Commission, advises: ‘It really helps to voice what you’re feeling – to get it out there and out of your head.’

Why it can be challenging to talk to your parents about mental health

Different cultural attitudes and value Your perceptions around mental health will be influenced by the culture you grew up in. For example, in some Asian and South Asian families, accessing mental health support is perceived as shameful. There can be pressure to ‘save face’, or to maintain the family’s reputation, which stops many people from seeking the help they need. This can be really difficult and feel hurtful and confusing.

When Niharika tried talking to her family about her feelings of depression, she was often told to ‘just work harder and focus on your school work’, and that would be the end of the conversation.

Different lived experiences When Niharika experienced a bad panic attack, she was offended by her dad’s response. ‘One of the first questions he asked me was, “Is it a money thing? Do you need money?” Looking back now, most of my dad’s experience with stress was related to money, particularly when my parents moved to a new country as a young married couple. When he saw that I was in pain, he was trying to empathise with me through an experience he was familiar with.’

Your parents may have experienced very different challenges to you, including feeling disconnected from their faith or culture. These experiences will shape their attitudes towards mental health and wellbeing.

Lack of knowledge about mental health It’s only recently that talking openly about mental health has become part of mainstream society. Your parents might even be experiencing their own mental health challenges without realising it. Lina Ishu, Youth Program Leader at Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), explains: ‘Over many generations, the symptoms become so normalised that they aren’t able to recognise when they are in an unhealthy mental place themselves.’

Language barriers It’s difficult to talk with your parents about your deepest thoughts and emotions when you aren’t able to communicate in a language your parents understand. Even if you do speak the same language, it might be hard to express your emotions if you don’t know what’s wrong or don’t know how to describe what you’re feeling.

How do I talk to my parents about mental health and wellbeing?

If bringing up this conversation feels unsafe for any reason, your personal safety and wellbeing comes first. We have tips in the next section about what support you can get that doesn’t involve your parents.

1. Ask them about their experiences and beliefs, to build a shared connection Learning about your parents’ experiences and how they coped when life was stressful will help you to see things from their perspective. You could ask them questions like: ‘How do your values/beliefs help you deal with stressful situations?’, or ‘What support do you wish you’d had when you were my age?’

If your parents have religious beliefs, that could also be a good starting point for talking about mental health. For example, you could chat with them about how meditation in Buddhism, or prayer in the Islamic faith, are directly connected to a person’s wellbeing.

2. Be honest about how you’re feeling If how you’re feeling is starting to affect your daily life, school or work, try speaking to your parents in an honest and open way, even if you don’t know what’s wrong. For example, you could say: ‘I’m not feeling well. I need help’, or ‘I’m worried about something and need to talk to someone about it.’

Describing additional physical symptoms can also be a good way to communicate how you’re feeling. Niharika explains: ‘Saying “my stomach hurts” or “I can’t concentrate”, makes it easier for your parents to understand and help you.’

3. Seek support from a trusted adult Ask an extended family member, or a trusted community leader, sports coach or teacher who knows you, to help you talk to your parents about what’s going on with you. These people are well placed to recognise the challenges you’re facing, to offer advice, or even to be part of the conversation with your parents as a mediator.

4. Find a professional support service to help you communicate with your parents There are many mental health services that you can lean on for support. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to your family GP, who may be able to facilitate a discussion with your parents.

If language is a barrier, you can use a tool like Heartchat to find a psychologist or a mental health clinician who speaks your parents’ language. They can help explain to your parents what’s going on with you, in a way they’ll understand.

5. Learn about mental health and wellbeing together Encourage your parents to learn about mental health and wellbeing with you. Try saying: ‘It’s important to me that we read this together’, or ‘It would really help if you went through this information with me.’

You can use online resources from ReachOut, Embrace or Transcultural Mental Health Centre (which can be translated into different languages) as a way to talk to your parents about mental health and learn more together. If you come from a refugee background, you and your parents could attend free counselling sessions or group workshops hosted by STARTTS.

What can I do if the conversation doesn’t go well?

See a GP If you’ve tried the above tips but your parents still aren’t listening, remember that it doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid or that you don’t deserve support. There are many other ways to get the help you need. Check whether you’re eligible to get your own Medicare card and see your GP about getting a mental health-care plan.

Remember that if you start seeing a medical professional, you’ll have confidentiality – the professional can’t tell anyone anything that you talk about, unless someone’s safety is at risk. Your parents and community don’t have to know anything if you don’t want them to.

See what's available in your community If you don’t feel comfortable visiting your GP for a referral, you can visit a Headspace centre for a face-to-face chat with a mental health expert. You can also meet with your school or uni counsellor, who can also talk to your teachers or lecturers if your mental health is impacting your studies.

Online and phone support If you’re looking for immediate support, you can call Kids Helpline or Lifeline.

If it’s not urgent, check out the ReachOut Online Community and connect with other people who might be in a similar position to you. It’s common to try out a few different options before you find a support service that works for you.

Take care of yourself The most important thing to do is take care of yourself. You could write down how you’re feeling, to help you make sense of things. You could do something that makes you happy, such as watching your favourite TV show or playing touch footy with your mates. Or if you want to try something that may relax you, why not give mindfulness meditation a go?

Try not to be discouraged – you’ve taken the brave first step in looking after your wellbeing and it’s important to keep going. You deserve to feel better and to get any support you need to get there.