Neuropsychologist Shares How To Broach The Topic Of Mental Health With Your Parents And Break Down Their Walls - Exclusive

Talking about mental health has many benefits. For one, it helps erase the stigma attached to mental illnesses. When talking about mental health with friends and family, it shows them you care, you can relate, and that they are not alone in what they are dealing with. So, if you're wondering why it's important to talk to your parents about their mental health, it's because not only are you opening a line of communication where they can confide in you, but you may also discover issues that can be passed down through generations. By knowing your parent's mental health history, you can take concerns to your doctor about your own health — and you can help inspire your parents to start getting help as well.


As our parents age, we may spend more time with them at doctor's visits as well, and this is a time when they could really need to open up about feelings of depression and anxiety. Being open with their adult children first can help ease this discourse. It also makes it easier for them to talk to their doctor in front of you. In order to help you break down your parent's walls and broach the topic of mental health with them, spoke exclusively to New York City neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, director of Comprehend the Mind, to get some important tips to share with our readers.

Prepare yourself ahead of time

It's easier to broach tough topics if you've done some planning ahead of time. Knowing what you want to say and how you want to say it is important. Dr. Hafeez told Women in our exclusive interview that you should, "Educate yourself about mental health and your specific concerns about your parent. This will help you understand what they may be experiencing and how to approach the conversation thoughtfully and respectfully." Learning about mental health challenges can help open your mind to what some people go through every day.


Practice will make the conversation go more smoothly, even if you have to practice in front of a mirror by yourself. Go over various scenarios. Get used to the idea that your parent may not want to talk about it, but also practice as though they're very open with you. Things could go either way, so you want to be prepared for whatever happens during your talk. 

You may also want to research mental health. Know about some of the most common mental illnesses, but don't go into the conversation trying to diagnose your parent — that should only come from their doctor. That doesn't mean you can't make some suggestions as to what they talk to a doctor about — explain some of the things you've witnessed that would be worth mentioning at an appointment. The more knowledge you have about what help is out there, the better you can help your parent.


Pick a space that feels safe

Mental health isn't an easy topic to dive into, and it's not something you want to bring up while you're dining out with your parents, hanging out in line at the grocery store, or at a family gathering — this is a conversation that needs to be strictly between parents and their children. In her exclusive interview with Women, Dr. Hafeez said you want to "choose a private and safe setting where they can speak freely without interruptions or distractions." This also means putting the phone on mute and turning the television off. Give your parents your undivided attention during this important talk, and ask them to also make the concessions needed to be present during this conversation.


Dr. Hafeez added that it's important to "choose a time and place where your parent will likely be relaxed and receptive to the conversation. Make sure that you have enough time for an entire discussion and that you won't be interrupted." Schedule your talk when everyone involved can dedicate their undivided attention — not on a day when you only have an hour to talk before you need to head to work or when your parents may have someplace else to get to. While the conversation may only take an hour, it could take a few hours, and you don't want to have to cut things off before everyone had been able to say what they need to.

Express your concern for your parent's health and well-being

You're not going into this to accuse your parents of anything, you're talking to them because you care and want them to know that you see they've been struggling. And, while they may have said or done hurtful things because of their mental health, that doesn't mean you should rub all of that in their faces. Dr. Hafeez told Women exclusively that you should "start the conversation by expressing your concerns and reasons for wanting to have the conversation. Be clear and specific about your observations." if you've seen your parents struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, let them know what you've observed and ask them if they've talked to the doctor about it. You want them to know that you have nothing but compassion for them.


Explain to your parents that many people with undiagnosed mental illnesses lean toward self-medicating, which can lead to even more issues. Alcohol and drugs not prescribed to them can lead to addiction. Describe anything that's been going on that has led to your concern for your parent's health and well-being. You want to comfort your parents and assure them you're not judging them. The concern here is getting them help, rather than confronting them for their mistakes — though that may be needed at some point if they're not understanding the importance of this topic.

Be ready to actively listen, but also share

One of the best ways to get someone to open up about a tough topic is to share your own experiences. If you've dealt with your own mental health issues, take the conversation there as you're trying to get to the heart of the matter with your parents. While you don't want to monopolize this time with your own stories, it will help ease the tension over talking about this tough topic. Your parents may find it easier to open up knowing you have already experienced some of these things. This also offers a chance for you to put your own mental health struggles in a positive light. As Dr. Hafeez exclusively told Women, "If you've had positive experiences with therapy or mental health professionals, share those experiences with your parents to help normalize seeking help."


Active listening is extremely important once your parents start to open up. "Allow your parent to express their feelings and thoughts without interrupting them. Show empathy and validate their feelings, even if you disagree with them," Dr. Hafeez said. "Encourage your parent to open up by using active listening techniques like nodding, asking clarifying questions, and responding in a way that shows you're genuinely interested." Active listening means keeping eye contact with your parent as they're talking, letting them say what they need to say, and listening to them rather than interrupting or spending your time thinking about what you're going to say next. 

Try to remain calm even if things don't go as planned

You may have your parent's best interests in mind when it comes to talking to them about this stressful topic — and you can make them feel comfortable before the discussion starts — but you can't control how they'll react to the subject at hand. Understand that your parent may not see an issue with their mental health. You can express your concerns, but that doesn't mean you'll get through to them, and it doesn't mean they won't get upset over what you're telling them you've seen and experienced.


In our exclusive interview with Dr. Hafeez, she said "Your parents may be defensive or dismissive because they feel overwhelmed." She added that you can help calm them down and accept your statements by "acknowledging their feelings and letting them know you care about their well-being." You can also consider taking a bit of a break if tempers start to rise. The entire conversation doesn't have to happen on a specific timeline, and there will be times when everyone may need a breather. If your parent gets extremely upset, you may want to end the conversation and make a plan to bring it up again at a later date. This isn't giving up on them, but allowing them time to process what you already said. Also, if your parents begin to yell, don't yell back. Remain calm and do your best to help them calm down.


You can also try a different direction

If you're not getting through to your parents, but you're not willing to give up, you can "reframe the conversation," Dr. Hafeez exclusively told us. "Instead of directly confronting your parent about their mental health, try to reframe the conversation to focus on how their behavior or actions are affecting you and your relationship with them," she said. This is where you'll want to bring up the things that they've done that have harmed the family or themselves. However, you still want to remain calm and collected.


There are all sorts of symptoms tied in with mental health illnesses, and they vary by diagnosis and person. Your parent could be spending more time in bed, neglecting the things they need to do around the home. They could be easily irritated and start fights. They could also be making matters worse by self-medicating — alcohol and other non-prescribed drugs can exacerbate the symptoms of mental health illnesses. If your parents have been neglecting self-care, made mistakes while working or watching their grandchildren, or done other things unlike their usual behavior, these are things you can bring up to help them understand the severity of the situation and the importance of getting help.


Watch their body language and listen to their tone

While there are many things you'll want to say, you also need to be sure you give your parents time to talk. While they're talking, be sure to pay attention to more than just the words that are coming out of their mouths. We say so much more without words than we do with them. Your parent's tone and body language will help you know when to lean in on the subject matter and when to back off some. You may not solve anything in one sitting. If they aim their legs away from you or cross them, it could mean they are feeling closed off and don't want to talk. If they are clenching their fists, they are getting angry.


In our exclusive interview with Dr. Hafeez, she said, "If your parent responds dismissively or defensively to your concerns about their mental health, remaining calm and respectful is essential." To determine if they're being defensive or dismissing, take a look at their tone and body language. If they get a shaky voice or start to go red in the face, add some calming and caring words — "I know this is hard to talk about, but I love you and want to help you get better."

Practice patience and avoid judgment

Empathy goes a long way when it comes to sensitive subjects. Put yourself in their shoes and avoid judging them. Dr. Hafeez suggested avoiding the use of "language that comes across as judgmental or critical. Instead, focus on how therapy or additional help could benefit your parents and improve their well-being." Rather than saying, "You could do better than this," say, "Your doctor may help you with medication that can ease your mood swings." You also want to watch your own body language and tone of voice — sit with your arms and legs open to your parents, showing you are welcoming them.


It's also important to be patient with your parents. "It may take several conversations before your parent is ready to acknowledge their mental health concerns and seek help," Dr. Hafeez exclusively told Women. While you want to be sure there is ample time to talk and work things out in one sitting, there is no way to know if that will be enough. Avoid seeming frustrated or checking the clock — your parents need you to be all there during this conversation. It shows them that you have their best interests in mind and are really looking to get them the help they need.

Always be supportive

From the moment you begin this conversation with your parents, you want them to know that you're coming to them because you love them and are concerned about them. There's more to this conversation than nipping a problem in the bud. You want your parents to be happy, healthy, and able to enjoy life. Open with statements such as, "We're concerned that you're spending too much time alone now and not enjoying the hobbies you used to," rather than "If you don't get better you won't be able to spend as much time with your grandchildren." This isn't about ultimatums, it's about care and love. This isn't about yelling and arguing, it's about finding a solution.


Dr. Hafeez suggested letting them know that you are with them every step of the way — your support may make all the difference in a parent finding help and recovery. She also suggested, via our exclusive interview, keeping the conversation going after your initial talk. "To keep the conversation going in a meaningful and supportive way, follow up with your parent after the talk to show you care. Keep communication lines open, be supportive, and show that you are there for them." As you would with a close friend, let your parents know that they can reach out in hard times and you will be there to lend an ear or help them find the right resources.

Help them get the help they need

Speaking of finding the right resources, it's important that you "offer resources that could help them, such as mental health professionals or support groups, and assure them there's no shame in seeking help," according to Dr. Hafeez. While "suggesting therapy or additional help can be challenging," Dr. Hafeez said being sensitive and watching your tone of voice can help — this will help keep you from sounding judgmental or patronizing. You can even "suggest going with them to a therapy appointment or researching treatment options together," Dr. Hafeez pointed out in our exclusive interview. She added, "Offer to support your parents in any way, whether helping them find a therapist or attending appointments with them."


Therapy and talking to doctors about mental health can be scary — it's the stigma around it. But you can help your parents feel more comfortable. First, Dr. Hafeez suggested framing the suggestion positively — "Frame therapy or additional help as a positive step towards improving their mental health and well-being." At the end of it all, you need to respect your parents and their decision. You cannot force them to seek help. Dr. Hafeez said, "Ultimately, the decision to seek therapy or additional help is up to your parents. Respect their independence and let them know you're there to support them, regardless of their decision." Give them time, they could change their minds.