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Psychologist | Speaker | Media Expert | Workplace Consultant | Researcher

My husband's family won't talk about mental illness

The question:

My husband’s family keeps psychological illness in the closet. How do I discuss openly with my children their cousin’s illness without antagonizing my in-laws?


The answer:

Unfortunately, there continues to be a significant degree of stigma around psychological health issues. Statistics indicate that 1 out of 4 Canadian adults will struggle with one of the more common psychological health conditions (depression or anxiety) at some point in their life.


There are two distinct issues you are raising: how to discuss the illness of a family member with your children, and how to not antagonize your in-laws. Separate these issues out and deal with them independently:


First, I would suggest that you and your husband have an open and candid discussion about where you stand as individuals and as parents with respect to this issue.


What are your respective beliefs about psychological illnesses? What are your values about what and how you speak to your children about this and other sensitive topics? What discussions are each of you comfortable in having with your children? If your husband holds some of the beliefs that his family does, this may be a challenging conversation.


The goal is to agree on how to approach discussions with your children.


There are a few things to keep in mind. First, my strong belief is that speaking openly with children about even difficult or sensitive topics is almost always the best approach to take. Conversations should always be age appropriate in terms of both the amount of information given and the language used to describe what someone is experiencing.


Having open conversations about difficult topics with kids can open the door for them to communicate with their parents about difficult topics when need be.


Discussing psychological health issues openly and respectfully with your kids also gives them a very powerful message: that you would accept them if they ever struggled. This keeps the door open for them to speak to you if they were to ever struggle at some point in their life.


The second issue you raise relates to you not antagonizing your in-laws. In-law relationships can be tricky to navigate around in the best of times.


Although being sensitive to this is important, to both maintain peace in the family and out of respect for your husband, ultimately you need to decide what values and behaviours you will model in your family and you need to stand behind this as a couple.

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