Attitudes towards mental health have been changing for the better in recent years. We’re more comfortable than ever talking to our kids about their mental health – and our own. But how can we encourage our parents' generation to open up about mental health and wellbeing?

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of us think it’s getting easier to talk about mental health. According to figures released in 2022, however, older people could do with more mental health support but are less likely to receive it than younger people.

The older we are, the harder we find discussing our mental health and admitting when we need help. Yet data shows that over half a million over 65s are experiencing an anxiety disorder, nearly half a million have a major depressive disorder, over 190,000 are experiencing chronic depressive disorder, and over 140,000 have bipolar disorder.

Nearly a fifth (19%) of the population in the UK are now 65 and over, with over half of over 55s having experienced common mental health problems. While more and more of us are willing to reach out and ask professionals for support according to figures released by Happiful, figures from the Mental Health Foundation reveal that, despite our increased comfort in talking about our struggles, just one in eight adults received mental health treatment.

While many of us are willing to seek out help for ourselves, how can we start the conversation with older parents and family members who may be reluctant to even talk about mental health, much less recognise or admit when they need help?

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

How do I talk to my parents about their mental health?

Set your expectations ahead of time

Don’t expect to have a huge heart-to-heart from the outset. While it’s possible they may feel ready to open up or talk about how they are feeling, if you push too much from the outset, or go in expecting to solve all of their problems, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment - and for pushback.

Opening up and getting the conversation started is in itself progress. By not pushing too hard the first time you try and get them talking about mental health, you can also avoid inadvertently turning it into a ‘right vs wrong’ conversation.

Go prepared

If you’re feeling uncertain or worried about starting the conversation, plan ahead and write down what you want to say. Make notes on any key areas you want to cover. This could be general notes to ask about how they feel about mental health, more open questions about how they’re feeling, or even how much of your own mental health and wellbeing you want to share.

Ease them in

Try and get started with some neutral or general questions. This can help to gauge their attitude towards mental health, as well as to see if they are ready to have a conversation about this with you here and now. If they seem closed off, very uncomfortable, or outright against talking about mental health or treatments, now might not be the best time to push for the conversation.

Remember: You are doing this from a place of care, love and understanding. It can be frustrating when you think someone you love isn’t getting the best help possible or isn’t recognising that they need help. These things can take time. You aren’t failing them if you don’t instantly manage to get them to talk about how they are feeling. You are doing your best to take things at a pace that isn’t making them more uncomfortable or less likely to be receptive to future conversations.

Be open, honest, and clear with yourself

It’s important to consider why you are bringing up these topics now. Do you want to be more open with your parents about your own mental illness? Are you worried their mental health may be declining, or that they may need to seek a diagnosis for a specific concern? Or are you trying to open the way for them to learn about another family member’s diagnosis?

Having this in mind can affect your approach and help shape how you handle things.

Actively listen

Listening to someone talk, and actually hearing what they have to say can be two very different things. When you are ready to have a conversation with your parent, ensure you are putting everything else aside to give them your full attention. Try to approach things by asking open-ended questions, as this allows you to get more details and keeps the conversation flowing.

Psychotherapist Sally Nilsson, HG. Dip.P, Hry. Cert. CS. MNCS (Accred), explains more about how to improve your active listening skills.

“When you truly listen, you need to really be quiet and not say a word. You won’t be listening if you keep piping in. Looking down at your phone won’t communicate you are listening either, nor will any distractions. Go somewhere quiet. Don’t fit the talk in around a busy schedule. Open-ended questions will get you much more information. When someone [listens] to our stories, really listen[s], generally, we feel lighter, happier and very cared for.”

Practice empathy

Each generation has experienced mental health differently. Things have become much more open in recent years, meaning many of us who are younger feel more comfortable than older generations, where the subject may have been more taboo.

It can feel frustrating to try and get across things that we take for granted but consider the reverse. For them, it may feel like they are being spoken down to, or they may worry that others think they are stupid or stuck in the past for not understanding more up-to-date ways of talking about these things (or even talking about subjects like therapy at all).

Be careful and considerate. Do your best to be open, listen to their concerns and frustrations, and avoid seeming dismissive.

Listen to their unspoken reactions

Pay close attention not to just how they are responding verbally, but to their tone of voice and body language. If they seem uncomfortable or unwilling to engage, it’s OK to wait and try having the conversation again at a later date. If they are already feeling stressed, overwhelmed, tired, distracted, or generally not open, pushing ahead now could make it more difficult to get them to talk (or listen).

If in doubt, wait until you are both feeling calm, in a place that feels safe or neutral for you both. Talking about sensitive subjects can make even the most comfortable, confident person feel vulnerable and exposed. Ensuring you are both ready and in a good place (physically and emotionally) can be a huge help.

Be open about your own experiences…

We all know from our own experiences growing up, that ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ is rarely a helpful practice. In order for your parents to best understand the benefits of talking about mental health, mental illness, and seeking help (be that therapy or other forms of support), leading by example can be one of the best ways to show them how it’s done.

If you feel comfortable, share some of the positive things you have learned from your own counselling experiences. Has a therapist helped you to learn new ways of managing stress, setting boundaries, or handling conflict? Perhaps you have started practising mindfulness or incorporating regular self-care as part of your routine, and have seen a positive impact. Or maybe working with your GP helped you to find the right balance of medication to help manage feelings of depression or anxiety.

We each have different experiences with managing our mental wellbeing and mental health. But we often underestimate the impact that sharing these experiences can have. Shifting the conversation away from your parents and what may be happening with them could help them to approach the subject with a more open mind, giving them a first-hand example of how different treatment options can help.

…but don’t compare your experiences with their own

Sharing similar experiences can be helpful. But when we accidentally compare these experiences or situations, it can make it seem like we are invalidating someone else’s feelings or experiences. It can also risk them closing off or minimising how they are feeling, as they may think it’s ‘not as bad’ as what you or someone else has gone through.

If you are opening up about your own experiences, focus on what you did to manage these feelings, or what help you tried.

Keep the conversation going

Try to have smaller, regular conversations instead of a big one-off talk. This can create more opportunities for them to open up, as well as help them to feel more comfortable as they become more familiar with talking about mental health.

Let your parents know that you are there for them

Knowing that you are ready to listen whenever they are ready can help some people to feel more comfortable. Taking away the pressure to open up immediately can give them the space and time needed to work through their thoughts, consider how they are feeling, and prepare themselves to open up on their own terms.

Keep things confidential

Let your parents know that they can trust you with anything they are willing to share.

Ask what you can do

It can be easy to assume that we know what’s best. Asking what your parent needs from you, or what you can help with can open the door for them to reach out and ask for help in ways we may not have considered.

If they insist that they are fine, you can always offer a few suggestions of what you think may help. Just be careful not to seem too pushy. Offering to have a regular phone call or a cuppa and a chat, making a homecooked meal for them, or picking up things from the store can all be small but meaningful ways of providing help, support, and more opportunities to open up.

Signpost other options

Not everyone is comfortable talking with friends and family about their struggles. Your parents may recognise that they need help but may be reluctant to put additional pressure on you. This could be due to worries that this may negatively impact your mental health, fear of being judged, or any number of other reasons. Let them know that there are other options.

They can speak with their GP to find out more about local mental health support services and diagnostic options.

Charities like the Samaritans offer 24/7 phone lines where they can call for free, to talk to someone without judgement about anything they may be struggling with - big or small. If they don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone, they can also write a letter or email to the Samaritans, or use their self-help app to track how they are feeling and access recommendations for how to cope, feel better, and stay safe.

Or if they are ready to work with a therapist, websites like Counselling Directory offer access to thousands of counsellors and therapists, specialising in a wide variety of topics, issues, and therapy types. This way they can take the time to seek out the right expert for them, filtering by types of session offered (in-person, online, or by the telephone), what issue is worrying them, types of therapy, accessibility, and more.

Offer to go with them

If they are uncomfortable or anxious, offer to go with them to speak with their GP. Some people may feel flustered or unsure how much information to share. Helping them to prepare by writing things down, and then offering to accompany them can help. Let them know that you can just take them to their appointment if they would prefer and wait for them in the waiting room or car, or if they would be more comfortable.

Encourage them to keep up with treatments

Whether they decide to try medication, talking therapy, self-help, or any combination of the three, it’s important to create a sense of consistency. Offer emotional support, and encourage them to keep going. In order for progress to continue and to have lasting effects, they need to keep going - even when things are starting to seem a little bit better. It can be all too easy to accidentally let things slide.

It’s never too late to reach out, seek help and find support. Mental illness can affect us at any age. To find out more about mental health support and how talking therapy can help at any age, visit Age UK - Your mind matters. To find out more about NHS mental health services including finding local services, therapy and counselling, as well as how to access urgent help, visit NHS mental health services.

Or to connect with a therapist, counsellor, or psychotherapist, visit Counselling Directory to find a qualified, experienced mental health professional near you.