Family Secrets: Mental Illness and Related Shame

Family Secrets: Mental Illness and Related Shame

Every family has its secrets, but some can be more harmful than others. For example, if you’re planning a surprise birthday party or a trip for a family member, these secrets often result in joy or excitement and can bring the family closer. However, other hidden family secrets, such as concealing mental health struggles, can lead to painful emotions detrimental to your own well-being and the family’s dynamic.

Depending on your family’s communication style, discussing mental illness may lead to uncomfortable or frustrating conversations due to a lack of understanding or fear of the attention these discussions may attract to the family. The initial reaction may be to keep it a secret and hope the issue goes away. Unfortunately, this tactic usually causes more harm than good.

Keep reading to explore the impact of keeping family secrets and learn how to foster healthier communication and understanding with your loved ones.

Understanding the Impact of Hidden Family Secrets

It’s not uncommon for families to keep secrets or delay sharing information. If someone is experiencing a financial hardship or a romantic relationship conflict, they may choose to keep it private until they feel comfortable sharing details. Research by The Society for Personality and Social Psychology reveals about 97% of people keep a significant secret at any given time, with the average person harboring around 13 secrets.

Often, a person conceals secrets from their family to protect themselves and their relationships. For example, some individuals may hesitate to share a mental health diagnosis with their family because they’re afraid of being judged or shamed. In some cases, a person may be encouraged by a family member to conceal their mental health struggles due to stigma or fear. However, keeping mental health secrets in the family can be extremely isolating, resulting in further mental or physical health issues.

Being told to hide your mental illness from others, especially by a loved one, can result in stress, anxiety and trust issues. As these feelings accumulate, you may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and digestive issues. Hidden family secrets can also create a toxic environment within the family that discourages opening up due to fear of being rejected or shamed by your loved ones, making it more difficult to share personal or sensitive information in other interpersonal relationships.

The Role of Shame in Mental Illness Concealment

Research by the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. Despite how common mental health struggles are, they still carry a social stigma some families may fear will harm their reputation. However, telling an individual to hide their mental illness can make them feel ashamed about who they are, even though they can’t control their mental health.

Shame is a powerful emotion that can cause feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness and disconnection. It can make a person believe they are flawed and have done something wrong, causing feelings of guilt and remorse for talking about their mental health struggles. These feelings can influence someone to believe they’re unworthy of love or belonging, resulting in additional mental health issues that include:

If you’re already dealing with a mental illness, these additional struggles can lead to self-destructive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse or self-harm, especially if you don’t feel comfortable discussing these issues with your loved ones.

Breaking the Silence: How to Foster Open Communication Within Your Family

In many cases, discomfort when talking about certain topics stems from a lack of knowledge or understanding. There are many misconceptions about mental health, such as that those with mental illness are dangerous or weak or if you simply try harder, your symptoms will go away. Facilitating open, honest communication clearing up these misconceptions and providing accurate mental health information can help your family better understand the situation. Because this can be a difficult conversation to initiate, here are a few tips on getting started.

Share What Makes You Comfortable

Before starting the conversation, check in with yourself to see how much information you’re comfortable sharing. It’s okay to tell your family you’ve been struggling with your mental health but aren’t ready to share specific details. As you process your emotions and become more comfortable speaking about your mental health, you can gradually reveal more information at your own pace.

Choose a Comfortable Location

Ensuring you and your family members are comfortable can establish a lighter, more relaxed atmosphere, making discussing heavier topics less intimidating. Decide whether you’re more comfortable speaking to everyone at once or individually before choosing a private location to converse without distractions or interruptions. This can make it easier to speak honestly and ensure you don’t miss any important information.

Provide Educational Information

When explaining your mental illness to family members, providing educational information can make it easier to get your point across and debunk any misconceptions they might hold. You can ask your therapist for informational pamphlets about your condition or find authoritative internet sources your family can review during the conversation or on their own after.

Set Boundaries

Don’t be afraid to set boundaries with your family by letting them know whether you’re seeking advice or just looking for someone to listen. Some people have uneducated or preconceived views of mental illness that may be unhelpful or even harmful to your personal situation. Kindly explain to your family you’re simply looking for support and understanding and inform them of the best way they can help you through it.

Seek Professional Support Today

Encouraging healthier conversations about mental illness to reduce feelings of shame and discomfort within your family can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Professional resources are available, including family therapy, that can help you and your loved ones have open conversations and understand each other’s conflicts, concerns or fears.

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health, you don’t have to endure this journey alone. At Restore Mental Health, we treat a wide range of mental illnesses, equipping you with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with your condition in a healthy manner. Contact us today to see how our services can help you foster a more positive relationship with yourself and your family.