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“How can I get them to understand that this is serious?”
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This is Crazy Talk: An advice column for honest, unapologetic conversations about mental health with advocate Sam Dylan Finch. While not a certified therapist, he has a lifetime of experience living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Questions? Reach out via Instagram and you might be featured.
Hi Sam, I am 17 years old and I strongly suspect that I have major depression. Whenever I’ve tried to raise this to my parents, they dismiss it as me being a typical moody teenager. How can I get them to understand that this is serious and that I need professional help?
Reader, I’ll be honest: Your question makes me feel a lot of emotions.
When I was in high school, I began having serious issues with depression, too.
My parents didn’t seem to grasp how serious the situation was, either. Not because they didn’t care, but because of their own issues with stigma, denial, and fear. As a result, it took me a tragically long time to get the support I needed.
So the advice I’m giving to you here is what I wish I’d known over a decade ago.
Bear in mind, though, that without knowing your unique circumstances, I can’t give you precise instructions on what you should or shouldn’t do, except to say this: You deserve the help that you need to feel better — so please don’t give up.
Assuming that your parents aren’t being abusive or threatening, you have three different avenues to accessing mental healthcare. I’ll outline them here with the hopes that you’ll be able to make a decision that aligns with your particular situation.
I always encourage people to first try having a vulnerable conversation when they feel misunderstood! Sometimes it takes more than one conversation to get someone to understand what we’re feeling and what we need from them.
If it feels safe enough to do so, here are some ideas for talking directly with your parents about your mental health.
Share resources with them
It’s possible that your parents simply don’t understand what depression actually is, and that teenagers can and do experience it!
You can always try sharing an article or two with them, like this one on adolescent depression.
You can also print off an article that speaks to you, highlighting the sections that resonate so that they can visually register how much this impacts you. There are also online screening tools like this one that you can take together and talk about.
I know it can be difficult to open up to your parents, but it is the surest way to help them better grasp what you’re going through.
Name the stakes
Sometimes parents mistakenly believe that teens will “grow out of” depression, when that isn’t actually true. It can be helpful to explain to your parents the impact that your depression is having on you.
Some examples of this could include:
- Mom, it’s been very hard to keep my grades up in school because I’ve been feeling so hopeless all the time. That’s why I want to talk to someone and get some extra support.
- Dad, I know I seem tough on the outside, but sometimes I have really dark thoughts, like I wish I could just disappear. That’s why I want to find a therapist who has experience helping people my age deal with that kind of stuff.
- Baba, I feel like the things that used to matter to me don’t anymore. I don’t feel like myself. The best way you can help me is by letting me talk to someone, just to make sure that I’m okay.
Hold your own
You don’t have to disclose anything to your parents that you aren’t comfortable sharing.
If you aren’t feeling safe enough to open up, it’s okay to simply reiterate what you need from them.
This could look like:
- I know that you’re concerned about me because you love me. But I’m a very private person and I would like to find a safe space that’s just mine to talk about my problems. That’s why I need a therapist.
- I know you want me to trust you. But I need you to trust that I know what I need right now. I need a therapist.
- If I had a broken arm, you wouldn’t try to set the bone for me, would you? Right now, the help that I need is around my mental well-being. I hope you’ll support me in that by helping me find a therapist.
Remember! You are the expert on your own body, and that includes your mind! No matter what your parents believe, if something doesn’t feel right, you should get a second opinion. A discouraging response doesn’t mean you don’t still need help.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, our parents have their own baggage or resistance that makes it hard for them to understand where we’re coming from. If there are other adults in your life that you can call on, don’t hesitate to reach out and see if they can support you in accessing help.
Talk to a trusted family member
This could be an older sibling, a cool aunt, or even a supportive grandparent.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, here are some conversation prompts:
- I was wondering if I could share something really personal that I’m struggling with. I’m having a hard time emotionally, but Mom is really resistant to letting me see a therapist. Do you think you could talk to her for me?
- Can I trust you with something? I’ve been feeling very depressed. I want to see a therapist, but Dad is having some hesitations. Could we talk to him together?
- You’ve always felt like someone I could talk to when things get bad. I really need your help. I’ve been feeling awful lately, but Baba is against the idea of me seeing a therapist. What should I do?
Involve a teacher, coach, or counselor
Is there someone at your school that you trust to support you in this?
Ask if you can speak to them in private using the same prompts as above. This can be really scary, I know, but trying to navigate depression by yourself is even more difficult in the long run.
Talk to your family doctor
If you have a checkup scheduled, you can always ask to be screened for depression or anxiety when you see your doctor. If you don’t have an appointment, you can ask your parents to schedule one, explaining that you’d like to be screened just in case.
Often times, parents will trust a doctor you’ve been seeing regularly more than they trust therapists or psychiatrists, and this can be a bridge to getting the care you need.
If your trusted person isn’t able to help? You can (and you should!) keep asking until you get someone who listens. Your mental health is the most important thing here. Don’t let anyone discourage you from advocating for yourself.
This is the “last resort” for when you can’t seem to get anyone to hear you.
Some of these options will eventually involve your parents, and some may not — you’ll know which option makes the most sense for you.
Try taking the first step for them
Otherwise known as “asking for forgiveness rather than permission.” Try signing up for a confidential website like TeenCounseling to talk to someone, and with your counselor’s help, involve your parents next. You can send them the FAQ page to get them comfortable with the idea.
Tell your parents you’d like to try a month of therapy to see if it’s helpful. Sometimes if you take the initiative, parents are more likely to take the issue seriously!
Find a counselor at your school
A little self-disclosure: When I was a teen, this is ultimately the route that I had to take to access help.
Many schools have something called a “crisis counselor,” and they aren’t required to report back to your parents except in extreme cases, such as being a risk to yourself or others.
Some schools also have psychologists that you can schedule time with. Reach out to a trusted teacher or staff member to get more information on what’s available to you.
Pay for it yourself
Yes, this can be costly, particularly if you don’t have a lot (or any!) money. This guide has affordable therapy options.
Depending on the state and country you live in, your therapist may or may not have to report back to your parents. Your best bet is to do a little internet research to figure out what risks are involved.
Seek out additional resources
There are a lot of other online resources that aren’t counseling but can help support you during this time. You can find some of those resources listed here.
Disclaimer: While it’s true that the use of online therapy makes it easier to lie about your age to access those services, it’s not recommended, as honesty is foundational to doing good therapy together! There are also legal complications that could impact your therapist’s ability to continue practicing.
You deserve help. You deserve support. And you deserve to feel better.
While I wish parents did a better job of getting this right the first time around, it may take some extra effort on your part to get the help that you need.
Please know, though, that the effort is worth it. Your life is worth it.
Take it from an adult who’s been there: It can get better, and it will get better with the right support. Good luck!
Sam Dylan Finch is a wellness coach, writer, and media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline, and co-founder of Queer Resilience Collective, a wellness coaching cooperative for LGBTQ+ people. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.