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'Passing Phase?': Why It's Difficult to Talk about Mental Health with Parents

Image for representation.

Image for representation.

A constant dismissal from your parents, who are meant to provide you with the first steps of safety and security, can strike a discord in the relationship.

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Shreya Basak

“I don’t know how my parents will react". "Maybe I am going to upset them". "Should I really burden them with my worries?"

Children, teenagers and young adults often find it hard to cope with mental health issues. And what makes it even harder is that for many, talking to parents is just as stressful as the problem itself.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the lens through which we viewed mental health issues in the past and put the focus on the need to talk about mental health. It was assumed that since individuals were locked up together due to quarantine, many would find it easier to talk about their problems to their loved ones. But the reality is somewhat different.

For many, the people we are locked up with seem to be the farthest ones to reach out to when it comes to addressing mental wellness.

“My erratic breakdowns or outbursts have always been termed as moody and immature and oh, of course - childish. My family is just not used to it. They do not understand how difficult it can be for a person who has been suffering from bouts of anxiety for close to 6 years now,” says 23-year-old Tanisha Bhattacharya, a final year fashion studies student in Mumbai.

Frustration, anger, anxiety have become just as pervasive amid the pandemic as the virus. And for many, especially children and young adults, the dismissive attitude of parents and relatives when it comes to mental health can do more harm than good. When parents call mental health issues a “passing phase”, children often tend to dilute the urgency of the situation and evoke equally dismissive responses like, “I am doing fine”. This not only further clamps up young people from talking about mental health but also takes away the "safe space" that we crave.

For 24-year-old Shireen (identity changed), a young entrepreneur based out of Bangalore, the situation hasn’t been quite different growing up in an ambience “like most Indian homes”.

“My parents consider anxiety as everyday worry and depression as sadness, which can be solved with a walk in the park or just snapping out of it. When I was going through a turmoil while struggling to earn a living in Mumbai, I did not have the emotional capacity to explain the significance of my problems and the reason I had to call for professional help. It was easier for me to rather take care of it by myself. However, after a long time I did open up to my mother about seeking therapy, but it did not go quite well,” says Shireen.

The thought of causing our parents troubles often produces a strong sense of guilt that further pushes away adults and children from breaching the gap created by mental illness.

Anisha, 26, (identity changed), a teacher based out of Kolkata narrates the upheaval of having her first nervous breakdown at the age 15.

“Even then lying in the hospital bed, I could not openly discuss with my parents about what bothered me. I could only narrate the surface causes for they were too pronounced to ignore. I thought I had caused them trouble; that was my first feeling of strong guilt.”

A constant dismissal from the people who are meant to provide you with the first steps of safety and security, can trigger a severe conflict in the relationship.This only worsens the situation for someone, who is already struggling to cope with a lot of emotional turmoil.

Akriti Singh (identity changed), a student based out of Delhi says that this has often created “a personal discomfort in asking for help” from parents, given the increasing communication gap .

“Another is my notion of how they'd react to mental health concerns. There's also a general feeling of being distant where family is concerned, and feelings of being emotionally unsupported,” says the 22-year-old student, who has suffered from mental health complications in the past.

The lack of awareness around mental health since early times has held back the empathy and care needed to be extended towards emotional illness as much as it’s done towards our physical illness.

Often parents try to address the concern with a more direct question — “What is wrong with you?” — which becomes the most difficult part to answer.

For Anisha, whenever she has suffered bouts of depression and hardly felt like leaving the bed for hours, all her mother has asked her, “Again, what happened?”

“I prefer popping a pill and going off to sleep, not knowing any better way to deal with it. I don’t think they ever knew the right questions to ask,” says the young teacher.

Dr Anuttama Banerjee, a consultant psychologist based out of Kolkata notes that it’s more difficult to speak up to our parents because they often try to understand the problem from a very investigative point of view, not from a sensitive positioning.

“Parents should be very sensitive towards the cues of the children if they are crying, or not in a good mood, or as a matter of fact vulnerable. Maybe the child is looking for a non-judgemental, neutral and space where they can talk. Parents should rather not feel insecure if they see their children aren't sharing everything. Instead look out for a space to let your child talk” says Dr Banerjee.

Harshita (identity changed), a young journalist with a travel magazine in Delhi feels it’s the space that parents don’t create for children to let them be their own person and not a product of their expectations.

The 24-year-old journalist, who suffers from severe anxiety and has been seeking professional help for many months, emphasises that children are not reflections of parents and that construct must be broken. They are their own people.

Dr Banerjee says, “What you also share with your parents is completely up to you. It’s your right and personhood to not share everything that’s happening in your life with your parents. You’re entitled to that as long as you have some sensible people around to open up to and fall back upon.”

However, the dialogue needs to be open and we need to keep trying to advocate mental health at a family level. But does it always turn out well?

Tanisha, who despite having “cool and broad minded” parents, often finds herself at a cross-road when it comes to her expressing to her mother about seeking help.

“I have mentioned it to my mother. I moved to Mumbai last year, and it was very difficult for me. Emotionally I've been a wreck because I've never stayed away from family and more than lonely, I felt scared. Eventually my condition worsened to such an extent that I had to speak to my mother about it,” she says.

But after the first few times did not go well, Tanisha withdrew. For a child who admits to have been the most vocal and expressive one in the family, that meant a complete personality change.

“So even if I am screaming within, I don't show it to my parents. To them I look normal and that’s what they care for.”

A very significant consideration is that many of our parents’ ideas of mental illness and treatment stem from a belief system primarily veered at not acknowledging or even admitting there is a problem. Without proper skill or understanding to deal with such issues, many often end up falling back on words like ‘abnormal’, ‘odd-behaviour’, ‘sick’ and other incorrect definitions and diagnosis of mental health issues.

“Often there are questions from the parents’ side, ‘What is that you share with therapists? What is it you’ll listen to them and not listen to me’, maybe it’s something parents have to introspect. What you say is not important but how you say is,” notes Dr Anuttama.

She further urges to not take this as an ego issue as to why ‘my child’ needs help from an external person. Rather one must be thankful that an external person is helping the child to collaborate with you. It’s not ‘me vs others’, it’s a collaborative process.

“It takes time for us to really understand and accept that we suffer from a mental health problem. Initially, a child tries to talk about it to their parents and is often dismissed which leads to emotional triggering and gaslighting,” recalls Shireen as she contemplates on her journey of helping herself.

Maybe it is not even difficult anymore with the rounds that mental health discussions are doing on all mass communication mediums. Show them your vulnerabilities so that they can be comfortable in sharing theirs, says Anisha adding that children need to feel loved and safe, not in means of a fancy hot wheels set or an overseas vacation; but through the ways in which their parents behave with them.

It’s never too late to fight the stigma around mental health at home and while doing so, let’s repeat : My mental health, my well-being is my priority even when my surroundings are not understanding that. We probably shouldn’t be giving up on this.


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