Note: Today’s blog has a new format; I will be answering a question from one of readers. If you have a question you would like to ask about health and wellness, relationships, or life, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your question could be featured on a future podcast.
Today’s question is from Brandiss, she writes, I am 50 years old and was diagnosed with depression about six years ago. I am married and have two teenaged daughters, I have been trying to explain my diagnosis to my family, but they don’t seem to understand what I am going through. Now that we are all stuck home together, I thought this would be a good time for us to have an honest conversation. How should I start?
Brandiss, thank you so much for your question; I know that the pandemic, social isolation, and sheltering in place has been a trigger for many of us suffering from a mental health disorder. I am so grateful to be out of bed today. As a Mental Health Practitioner, I worked with families to help them to understand their loved one’s diagnosis so that they can be a natural support for them once our services ended. Sometimes, it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
I know we have made a lot of progress, but there is still a stigma attached to a mental health diagnosis. I applaud you and anyone who has the courage not only to face their diagnosis but also to share it with their families so that they can begin to understand and provide valuable help when it is needed. I have four tips that I think will work well for you and anyone dealing with a chronic illness. Your mental illness is probably not going to go away but can be managed successfully. These four steps should get the conversation started.
- Education: Don’t skip this step; it would help if family members had a bird’s eye view of exactly what symptoms and causes of your mental health diagnosis. They don’t need a dissertation; you can simply give them a pamphlet, article, or book. You can provide the information and then give them time to digest it and ask you questions. Check out this TEDx talk by Dr. Lloyd Sederer entitled When Mental Illness Enters a Family. You and your family can watch Dr. Sederer’s talk together.
- Be Clear on What You Need: This is not the time to have family members guessing on how to help you, guesswork will just increase the stress for both you and your loved one. So, tell them, when I feel this way__________, I need you too___________. Remember that you and your family members are dealing with something that even the medical community doesn’t fully understand. For example, when I am having an anxiety attack, I need you to remind me of one of my coping strategies, whether that’s journaling, walking, listening to a meditation recording, or yelling into a pillow. Knowing what to do will empower your family members.
- Explain your triggers: If you have worked with a mental health practitioner, then you’ve heard of triggers. Discuss yours with your family so that they can be aware that a person, place, thing, or event can trigger an episode for you. About three years ago, I was working with a client who was diagnosed with OCD. We sat down with her kids and explained to them that leaving the shoes and bookbags at the front door when they came home from school was a trigger for mom. Instead, we asked them to take all their belongings to their room. Because when they dropped them at the door, this triggered mom to want to clean for two or three hours instead of cooking dinner. If possible, schedule a meeting with you and your family and your therapist. They can provide real support for you as you try to explain to your family how they can help.
- Guard your feelings: sometimes, family members and friends can be very supportive and loving, and sometimes they will just not understand. You do not have to argue with them or try to convince them that what you are feeling is real. Remember that Supportive Loved Ones Come in All Shapes and Sizes, if you cannot find natural support from your family and friends, look for it in the form of professional assistance from a therapist, case manager, or coach. Search for online support groups or start your own. While you want family members to be there for you, give yourself permission to focus on getting well.
If you are trying to provide support for someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness check out Nami the National Alliance ON Mental Illness -they have an excellent program called Family to Family that is designed to help family members have a better understanding about mental illness and how they can be supportive. I took this program way back in 2010 and it was a great resource.
Wishing You Peace and Love,
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