Speaking Openly About Mental Illness and Your Family Culture

February 17, 2020 Nicola Spendlove

Speaking openly about mental illness helps, but one thing I know for certain is that ''talking about your feelings'' cannot cure a diagnosable mental illness. To purport this idea is reductive and shows a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the complex physiological roots of psychiatric conditions. However, through supporting my brother in his experiences with anxiety and depression, I have come to appreciate that talking openly about emotions does play an extremely important role in a family where mental illness is present.

Speaking Openly About Mental Illness Helped Us Understand My Brother

Irish culture is not exactly known for speaking openly about mental health issues. Perhaps this is why my family and I found it so difficult when Josh* was diagnosed -- we wanted to be supportive, but how do you ask someone about dark feelings when you don't even know how to talk about bright ones?

Changing the culture of how my family dealt with difficult emotions was a necessary step, and I was relieved to realize that this didn't have to mean dramatic confrontations -- although, for some families, it may. For us, it began with making a conscious effort to acknowledge the emotion in the everyday.

I started by sharing small grievances from my working life with my family. Then one day, my mother shared with us that a song on the radio had made her cry because it reminded her of our aunt, who had died a few years previous. My father began confiding in us about his health concerns. These were issues that we couldn't necessarily offer each other solutions to, but we learned that sometimes being heard is just as meaningful.

Against this background, it suddenly didn't seem so jarring when Josh told us about the phobia he'd developed of driving. We now recognized that we were all people with individual issues going on, and we simply gave him practical support with getting places until he managed to get back behind the steering wheel a year later.

Speak Openly About Mental Illness Despite Initial Awkwardness

Creating a family culture where people speak openly about their mental illness, emotions and stress-levels can feel awkward at first, especially if it's not something you're used to. I have written in the past about how I was also silently struggling with anxiety at the time of Josh's diagnosis. My first instinct was to push these feelings even further down -- after all, the last thing my family needed was someone else to worry about, and I didn't want Josh to think I was trying to make the situation about me. Six years on, I realize that being open about my anxiety levels would have ultimately been a positive thing for us all. 

Our family is far from perfect, but we are better at talking about our feelings than we used to be. We now have firsthand experience of how this benefits not only Josh but all of us.

How has family culture impacted your ability to speak openly about mental illness? Share your thoughts in the comments.

* Name changed to protect confidentiality.

APA Reference
Spendlove, N. (2020, February 17). Speaking Openly About Mental Illness and Your Family Culture, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Nicola Spendlove

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Lizanne Corbit
February, 17 2020 at 7:45 pm

I am so glad to come across this post. I love that you speak about "creating a culture". This goes beyond the one and done kind of conversations, it's the concept of really creating a safe space where conversations, like ones about mental illness, can happen openly and freely. I also appreciate the point that talking about your feelings can be extremely beneficial but it is not a stand-alone cure.

February, 20 2020 at 2:52 am

Hi Lizanne,
Thank you so much for your comment. I totally agree that it takes time and conscious effort to create a culture where families feel safe to talk about anything and everything, including mental illness. There are so many different ways to do this -- I recently spent time with a community that hold a set ''meeting'' every single day where each person is given three minutes to speak uninterupted. The rules are that nobody offers feedback on what individuals say unless requested -- meaning it encourages everyone to practice speaking without fear of judgement. I thought this was a really interesting way of building an open culture, though an approach as structured as this would have been far too intimidating for our family in the beginning. I guess every group and family dynamic is different, and it's all about finding what works for you!

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