The struggles of talking mental health with older generations

Disclosing my mental illnesses to my parents was difficult and necessary

Dana spoke to her parents about mental illness 11 years after her first panic attack.
Photo: 

Our parents are normally the ones to notice many of our firsts in life. However, our first panic attack, depressive episode, or sign of mental illness is often neglected.

Most of our parents didn’t grow up with the same knowledge and understanding of mental illness the current generation has. My parents clearly didn’t, as evidenced when they referred to my anxiety as “getting excited,” or being “agitated.” 

The first panic attack I remember having was at the age of seven, triggered by a story from the Old Testament. However, my parents didn’t see my reaction as anything unusual. Their response is nothing against them—they simply didn’t recognize my symptoms of mental illness. 

But the language they used to describe my symptoms diminished the science behind my body’s physiological response to panic attacks.

Some parents—those often working in fields that have backgrounds in mental health—are able to pick up on their child’s mental illness at a young age due to their knowledge of its different signs and symptoms. But for most baby boomer or early Gen X parents, mental illness education was limited and stigmatized.

In my first year at Queen’s, I was forced to finally come to terms with my poor mental health. It stopped being an occasional distraction and started controlling my everyday actions. 

I wasn’t the one to start the dialogue about mental illness with my parents—my friend was. She called them while I was hysterically crying about my upcoming exams. It was the first time they realized my anxiety was more than “excitement.” 

Finally, we began a dialogue about mental illness, 11 years after my first panic attack.

My mental illness was impacting my academics and personal relationships. Although my friends had provided a great support system, I needed my family and doctor’s support to address my ongoing symptoms.

I wish I could say with more support I overcame my intrusive, anxious thoughts. But that’s not how mental illness works. Instead, I began a three-year rollercoaster trying to explain the mechanisms my body and mind were going through to my parents. 

It took six months and several conversations for them to realize medication was necessary. I asked my doctor to explain anxiety from a medical perspective to my mother, and he drew analogies to other, more common illnesses—in my case, chemical imbalances and serotonin deficiencies. 

I let someone else explain my anxiety because it was too difficult to verbalize myself. This doesn’t make me weak—it just means I used the support system I created for myself. I consider this moment a huge turning point with my mother and my anxiety. She finally understood anxiety was an illness, one resulting from a lack of specific chemicals in the brain.

Honest conversations with parents are hard. We never want to disappoint them, and that’s a big reason why I internalized my struggles. I didn’t want mental illness to make me seem like less of a perfect daughter.

I didn’t want mental illness to make me seem like less of a perfect daughter.

I also didn’t want them to think any of this was their fault. My parents provided me with a beautiful life filled with joy and love. I initially felt like my depression and anxiety made it seem like I wasn’t grateful for all they did for me, or that I was implying they had done something wrong.

As much as my friends and doctor have opened a dialogue with them, I’ve had to bring the conversation about mental health into reality. Due to two recent suicides in my religious community, I’ve had very honest talks with my parents about mental illness. My dad mentioned he’d reached out to check on his friend’s mental health; my mom talked about possibly volunteering at a suicide hotline. 

My parents don’t empathize with my experiences—they can’t because they’ve never had a panic attack or a depressive episode. But they sympathize and make an effort to learn and help me where they can. That’s all the support I’ve ever wanted from them, and I’m incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made together. 

Our generation has immense knowledge about the realities of mental illness. It’s time to educate the generations before us.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.