So you’re going to therapy, congratulations!
The hardest part—recognising the need and actively seeking for help—is over. Well, almost.
After getting the support you need, you may be ready to be open with your family about how you’ve been spending your weekday evenings. Maybe you want to assure them that you’re in a better place, or maybe you’d like to discuss the breakthroughs you’ve had.
In any case, broaching the topic of mental health with your parents, especially if you live in an Asian household, can be difficult. With this in mind, we made room in the Mental Health Festival 2023 line-up for a session titled Bolder and Wiser: Navigating Adult Relationships in Our 30s, starring three Singapore-based influencers.
Mental health stigma in Asian households
Generational gaps and differences in lived experiences are some of the primary reasons millennials and Gen-Zs don’t always see eye to eye with their parents on a topic as nascent as mental health. After all, the latter grew up in a time when survival and making ends meet were their primary concerns, rather than unpacking their childhood traumas.
“It’s only in recent times that we hear about depression or mental health or anxiety, but I’m pretty sure back in our parents’ days, they were only preoccupied with making money,” said actress and host Eswari Gunasagar. “They were probably thinking ‘I’m feeling this way but I don’t know exactly what I’m feeling.’ It’s only now that there’s a label to it.”
Their lack of mental health literacy, combined with their upbringing, which carries its own set of baggage, can foster misconceptions (e.g., the belief that going to therapy implies having a mental illness) and serve as barriers to the conversations you should be having about your feelings, desires, needs, and relationships with each other.
“Millennials are fortunate enough to be the ones who break barriers and be the first generation to have these conversations openly,” said actor and advocate of mental wellbeing Hanli Hoefer. So while it can be jarring to “break the [parent-children] dynamic by being the ones who teach them” about mental health, it’s also a conversation millennials are better equipped to start.
How to broach the topic of mental health
1. Ask them about their lives
Inevitably, the differences in our lived experiences shape our perspectives, behaviors, and world views. For example, baby boomers who grew up in an era where technology was not as pervasive as it is now may perceive it as a tool rather than an integral part of daily life. Consequently, they may feel frustrated that their children would rather share their thoughts with strangers on social media than with their own parents at the dinner table.
Rather than “blaming” our parents for these differences, content creator Aiken Chia suggests approaching them with curiosity:
“In my 30s, I had a chance to examine my parent’s upbringing. I was able to ask my parents what age they lost their parents, what were some of the identifiable patterns they grew up with and are still living out, and that’s helped me be more empathetic and understand them a lot better.”
It’s often said that maturing as an adult comes with the recognition that your parents, too, are human. Like us, they make mistakes without intending to cause hurt.
“Realising that my parents were human really brought down a lot of walls on both sides. Now, my relationship is great with them,” said Hanli, adding that parent-children relationships are always a work in progress. “And that almost makes the journey a lot more acceptable and pleasant—almost joyful because you can almost choose to make it joyful if you will.”
2. Lead with vulnerability
When you approach the conversation, it’s important to let go of any assumptions about how it will go. For example, if you assume that they will react negatively or be judgemental when you bring up the topic of therapy, you may become anxious and stressed in anticipation of the conversation. This, in turn, can lead to either party getting defensive and hinder the open and honest communication that could have otherwise taken place.
“When I started going to therapy, I didn’t tell my parents at all,” said Eswari, who was afraid that the news of her therapy would worry her parents. “Once I was getting perspective of what was happening to me, I started opening up to my parents. I told my mom. Surprisingly, my mother took it very well. She was listening to me… She was glad I was getting the help I needed—as long as her daughter is getting better, that’s what matters to her.”
In fact, it may surprise you that vulnerability begets vulnerability, even when you least expect it.
“My parents found out I was going to therapy when I spoke about it on a public platform,” said Aiken. “One day, my mom popped by my room and said ‘I just want to say I saw that video and I’m sorry for everything; if I caused any of this.’ My dad texted me and said ‘I truly didn’t know you felt that way all these years. It wasn’t my intention to make you feel like you were less than. I thought I was trying to motivate you.’”
Even without confronting them personally, being completely open and articulate about his feelings “opened up a vulnerability in them” and “a door to open and honest conversations.”
Ultimately, manage your expectations, relinquish control, and accept whatever the outcome might be. Above all, find solace in the courage it took to reach out and share your thoughts and feelings. That, in and of itself, is a sign of growth.
3. Keep your boundaries intact
“Everyone’s relationship dynamic is different and the conversation is going to go differently for everyone, so I think it’s important to draw out—for your own sanity and your own peace—what your boundaries look like,” said Hanli. And that includes what you choose to reveal.
Even if you want to tell your parents you’re going to therapy, you don’t necessarily have to disclose every little detail. For instance, you could mention that you’re working on improving your self-esteem without delving into past experiences, such as childhood bullying, if you don’t feel ready. Decide what you’re comfortable sharing and communicate your boundaries with them before bringing it up.
“At the beginning of your journey, know where your safe space is for you and stay within that space. You don’t need to give it all away. Just do what’s right for you,” said Hanli.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a two-way street. If you want to bring up topics that are difficult for your parents, understand that they may not be ready to have those conversations just yet. Furthermore, even if they were willing, acknowledge that they may not have the vocabulary to articulate not only facts and events but also their inner experiences.
“There were times when I brought up certain things that were very difficult and very intense, and I knew that perhaps they weren’t ready to go there and they themselves haven’t thought it through,” said Aiken.
“It’s then important to go in with a boundary before and say ‘Hey, I might go into this topic’ and know that they might not be ready, and that’s OK.”
Your mental health, your responsibility
Regardless of the outcome, and whether you choose to bring up the topic at the dinner table one day, remember that reaching out is one of the best things you can do for yourself. While having your parents’ support would be ideal, don’t lose sight of your ultimate objective even if you were met with ambivalence or disapproval.
“Our mental health is under the domain of our responsibility, so we should always take the first steps to look after ourselves. And if that means going ahead to see a therapist or counsellor before consulting a parent, then I absolutely support that,” said Hanli. “I think if we wait for permission we’re giving our power away or giving someone else the green light for our own benefit.”
Looking to talk to someone in Singapore? Try Intellect Clinic, which offers affordable counselling and therapy sessions in two central locations—Tanjong Pagar and Parkway MediCentre in Woodleigh Mall—with same-week appointments available.
Both clinics are staffed with experienced clinical psychologists who are trained to conduct psychological assessments and journey with individuals through depression, self-harm, and anxiety disorders. Learn more about their specialisations here.