Talking about mental illness

Talking about mental illness can be a harrowing experience. Whether you have been newly diagnosed with mental illness or have managed it for years, it can be complicated to come out about mental illness. While the people who love you probably want to be helpful, they may not know how. Even well-meaning friends or family members might say something that makes you feel upset or misunderstood.

Choosing when to have these conversations is important. One factor is whether it will be helpful to talk about it with a particular person. If you don’t think the conversation will be constructive, you can delay it until you’re ready to handle it.

Learn more about when to talk to people about your mental illness.

Talking to family

If you have a close and supportive relationship with your family, you may count on them for support. You can talk with them about your mental health issues the same way you would talk to them about a physical illness. Bring them into the discussion as soon as you feel ready to talk about it.

If your relationship with your family is complicated, you may decide to hold back details about your illness and treatment. It’s perfectly fine to keep your situation private if telling them would make things harder for you. You and your mental health team can decide what your family needs to know and when you should talk to them.

Talking to friends

Friends can be an invaluable resource for anyone going through a difficult time. You can tell your closest friends about mental illness as soon as you are ready to share the details. Friends will often offer to help you with anything you need, whether that’s a shoulder to cry on or someone to drive you to appointments. They may have their own experience with mental illness.

You aren’t obligated to tell all of your friends about your mental health. You also don’t need to share every detail of your diagnosis or treatment. Your privacy is important, and you can decide for yourself what your comfort level is when it comes to sharing. Some people want a friend to know everything. Others just want friends to know the most general information.

Talking to romantic partners

If you are in a long-standing romantic relationship, your partner is the person most likely to know about your mental health. This is particularly true if you live together. Your partner can see your behavior and moods every day and will notice if something is unusual.

If your partner is supportive and helpful, they can be your closest confidante about your mental health. You and your counselors might choose to include them in your care from the beginning. If your relationship with your partner isn’t supportive, talk to your mental health team about how to handle that. They will be able to help you make a plan to manage your care and your relationships.

If you are in a new relationship, it’s up to you when you choose to reveal your mental health condition. You may feel comfortable sharing the details with new people you are dating, and that’s fine. If you prefer to wait a while to see if the relationship will last, you can make that choice as well. Your mental health counselors can help you with those decisions if you’re not sure what to do.

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Telling people at work

You are not obligated to tell your employer or coworkers about your health, mental or physical. The decision is up to you. If you do decide to talk about it, you may be legally protected Americans With Disabilities Act. The ADA protects people with a verifiable disability from discrimination at work.

You will need to share some information if you decide to ask for accommodations. Depending on your situation, you may need to ask your employer for accommodations to help you do your best work in the following ways:

  • Flexible work schedules
  • Work from home
  • Flexible break schedule
  • Private, quiet space to rest during a break
  • Regular written or verbal feedback 
  • Using noise-canceling headphones or other tools to minimize sensory overload
  • Use of a job coach

If you need to take extended time off for mental health treatment, you may be able to do so under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This applies to people who have worked for 12 months or more at companies with 50 or more employees. You can take up to 12 weeks of leave without fear of losing your job.

If you want to discuss your mental health at work, you may want to talk to the Human Resources department first. They can tell you about your rights in your workplace. They will also know the procedures for asking for accommodations or leave.

Tips for talking about your mental illness?

When you decide to discuss mental illness with anyone in your life, make a plan for what you want to say. Ask them to hear you out before they respond so you can explain fully without interruptions. You may want to tell people in writing and ask them to talk with you in person later.

It may be helpful to describe things your friends and family can do to support you. Letting them know what you need will prevent them from guessing and making mistakes. You can also let them know what your boundaries are so they don’t overreact and upset you.

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Medically Reviewed on 10/6/2021
References
Massachusetts Department of Health: "Why do we need to talk about mental health?"

National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Disclosing to Others," "Succeeding at Work."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "For Friends and Family Members," "For People With Mental Health Problems."