How to talk to your parents about mental health

Mental health is a difficult subject to breach with anyone, let alone parents. Faculty counselor Jennifer Wright discusses tools students can use to begin the conversation.

Hannah Pederson, Senior Online Reporter

The phrase “mental illness” carries a negative connotation, and there’s really no way to undo the centuries of stigma and fear that surround it.

This then makes it problematic for anyone to even begin the conversation about mental health with the people they care about, especially if they’re made doubly vulnerable by being a minor in the care of their parents, who grew up in a generation where mental illness was something best left in the dark.

Minors though are increasingly dealing with their mental health concerns.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials who analyzed data collected from 2005 to 2011, 13 to 20 percent of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and these numbers are increasing.  

When it comes to major depression, one of the most common forms of mental illness defined as a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest according to the Mayo Clinic, a study conducted last year by the National Institute for Mental Health found that an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

This age range fits Running Start students who are from 16 to 18 years old and make up 60 percent of the Pierce College Puyallup campus population.

People with major depression and other mental illnesses didn’t choose to have them. The only choice they have in the matter is to get help, which sounds so simple.

The reality for many mentally ill people is that they don’t know the way they feel and experience life is influenced by an illness or disorder, which complicates life and makes it harder than it has to be.

They can’t remember a time when anything was just easy or fun, when getting up and going to class wasn’t something that took an hour and made them hate themselves, when getting a bad test score didn’t make them spiral into self-loathing and self-destructive behavior.

That’s not how life has to be, and that’s not how people have to feel. They deserve to feel secure and stable, and have the right to the care and treatment that can get them there, no matter their age.

Young adults are just as, if not more, vulnerable as their adult counterparts to every form of mental illness. According to a similar study from the National Institute of Mental Health on major depression in adults, only 6.7 percent of adults overall experience depression, whereas 12.5 percent of adolescents are affected.

They should be able to seek treatment without being told this is just something they’ll grow out of on their own.

That mindset, that mentally ill youths are just going through a phase, is incredibly dangerous.

It stops many young people from reaching out to someone they trust and telling them what they’re going through for fear they won’t be taken seriously, that how they feel and react isn’t valid.

Unfortunately, this is the mindset that many parents of Running Start-aged students adopt when their children come to them saying they’re struggling and don’t want to feel the way they’ve been feeling anymore.

That conversation is often the most difficult in the process, and preparing  for it can be daunting.  

Faculty Counselor Jennifer Wright sees many students come through her office asking her how to approach the process.

“Usually the first thing I do is just gather information to see how they think it’s going to play out, because there’s a reason why they’re asking for that help,” Wright said. “I usually tell them it’s helpful to write down all they want to talk about, to kind of get an idea of how they want that conversation to go.”  

Making this outline ensures that every point the student needs to make is at least heard, and they can deliver the full picture.

“Secondly, I suggest that if students feel that it would be helpful to go ahead online and take a couple different mental health screenings or inventories if they think they have depression or anxiety or whatever it might be,” Wright said.  

Getting those results can validate a student’s concerns even if their parents don’t, and help solidify the notion that this problem is real and deserves to be acknowledged, at the very least.  

The counseling page on the Pierce website offers several screening tests, all free and confidential.  

Wright encourages students to enter this conversation prepared with facts and research, which makes it difficult for parents to brush off the student’s concerns.

“I think it’s helpful for parents to hear that a child has researched what might be going on and have some concerns instead of just saying, ‘I think this how I’m feeling,’” Wright said. “The more they have to back it, and the more they show they’ve put some time and thought and effort into this, I think that usually gets parents to stop and listen rather than just blowing it off.”

If parents are able to move beyond denial, the following reactions can deter students from pressing further, but it’s important to keep in mind where these reactions are coming from.

“Most of the time the negative reactions that students see are fear-based, because parents don’t know what to do,” Wright said. “It’s shocking to them to hear it for the first time, so keeping that in mind, don’t let that fluster you into not having the conversation.”

If parents aren’t able to acknowledge their child’s illness, students have other avenues open to them to pursue professional help.

“In that instance, I tell students not to give up and if they’re not being heard by their parents to work with other adults and other supports in their life that might be able to get them to the help they need,” Wright said. “If it’s not going to a doctor and talking to a doctor, then it’s going to the school counselor, an instructor, your friends or your friends parents, but letting someone know ‘This is what I’m going through and I’m not getting the support I need.’”

The Puyallup campus offers free and confidential counseling for as long as a Pierce student needs.

The advantage of using Pierce’s counseling service is that it doesn’t require any insurance, so students who are minors don’t need to ask their parents for insurance information.

If they don’t feel comfortable telling their parents they’re in counseling, they don’t have to.

Because this conversation is so difficult and so necessary, some students might find it easier to write down what they want to say and give it to their parents, so they can digest it in their own time, and schedule a time when they can sit down together and discuss it.

Whether the student chooses to talk face-to-face or write everything down, it’s important to provide concrete examples of what they’re going through and how they interpret it.

“Giving concrete examples is really helpful for parents, to say ‘When you saw me do this on Wednesday or react like this, it wasn’t because I was trying to be defiant or that I didn’t care, it was because this is how it effects me and this is how my mind works and this is how I feel when I’m going through it,’” Wright said. “It’s just helpful to be as transparent as you’re comfortable with being in order to give the most information you can to get the appropriate help.”

Talking with parents is just the beginning of the mental health conversation.

The first step to solving an issue is addressing it, which is something the U.S. is just beginning to do.  

As the national discussion about mental health and mental illness develops, it’s imperative that the local discussion develops alongside it and pushes the community to make progress.

“Here (at Pierce), it’s an everyday thing of breaking down that stigma, being open to talk, to share experiences,” Wright said. “The fact that this generation is willing to seek out help and talk more openly about it, I think when it comes time for them to be parents, they’ll remember and be more open to having those conversations with their kids, that’s why I say I’m hopeful.”



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Hannah Pederson

How to talk to your parents about mental health

by Hannah Pederson time to read: 6 min