When Your Family Doesn't Understand Why You Need Medication for Your Mental Illness


“What does she have to be anxious about?”

“She just needs to learn to relax, she doesn’t need medication.”

“No, I think she needs a second opinion, not medication. She’s fine.”

Getting help with a mental illness and going on medication can be intimidating for anyone. It’s a big decision and one that few of us take lightly, but often, it’s easier than many decisions to make, especially when you know you can’t manage alone. The journey to a healthier place when dealing with mental health is never easy, but having a family that doesn’t understand what you’re going through can make it even harder.

The stigma around psychiatry and medication for mental illness is still prevalent. I bought into it for a long time. With my anxiety already riding my back whispering I was never good enough, never working hard enough, never making enough friends, I also had to wrestle with an internalized sense of shame about taking medication. I avoided it for a long time, thinking I would be “failing” if I admitted I needed help. When I finally reached the point of accepting I needed more than I could give myself right then, I faced an unexpected frontier. Apart from the stress of finding a psychiatrist, managing the bureaucracy of needing chronic medication my medical aid wouldn’t cover, appointments they wouldn’t pay for, and a healthcare system that isn’t there to make you feel safe and cared for, I had to face questions from my family.

Their questions came from a place of love. I was lucky, as I know not all families can be as supportive or accepting of mental illness among their ranks as mine were. But, nevertheless, my family did not initially understand my diagnosis nor my need to be on medication. It took work and my mother’s dogged persistence in supporting my choices to win them over, and I learned some valuable lessons along the way.

1. Education is everything.

Presenting someone with a pamphlet, a print-out or a book on your mental illness can be invaluable. Reading about what you may be living with on a daily basis can be louder than your repeated desperate descriptions. Reading books rooted in the scientific mindset which dominates Western knowledge systems can be valuable in presenting a hard-fact case for things you can otherwise only explain through your own experience.

2. Don’t be afraid of honesty.

Being honest about how much you are struggling helped me come to terms with it for myself and to show my family the extent of how hard it was managing my disorder unassisted. When I could see them understand exactly where I was, I could allow myself to accept it too, without punishing myself, and begin to dissolve my fears of failing them or myself. Allowing people into the chaotic, confusing and dark place that may accompany mental illness can be incredibly daunting, but it can also bring acceptance and support in moving forward, something often stolen by mental illness in the first place.

3. Treasure any support you can find.

Whether it’s an aunt, a mother, a sibling, a friend or a person in your community like a priest or teacher, having someone on your side is incredibly valuable, especially on days when carrying on your own fight is taking 100 percent of your energy. Having a back-up who can continue explaining for and defending you can allow you space to focus on your own self-care, safe in the knowledge someone is in your corner. This can be hard with disorders that make socializing and maintaining friendships hard, like anxiety and depression do, so it’s important at all times to be kind to yourself and understand what your limits are. If you feel comfortable sharing and recruiting with dozens of people, that’s great! If it’s only one person, that’s just as great! There is no rubric for your mental health journey, no right or wrong paths.

These three things helped me educate and share with my family about what my mental illness means to me, now and every day. They learned and are learning constantly, and I try to share whenever I can to help them know how best to support and care about me. Having someone in your corner means someone is around to counteract the noise in your head telling you you’re alone. Mental illness breeds loneliness. Sharing our stories and finding unconditional love in our worlds takes that power back.

Image via Thinkstock.


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