How to Talk About Mental Health With Your AAPI Parents or Family

By Michelle Yang

As an immigrant child, the first time I heard about mental health conditions was from my dad. He told me his depressed acquaintance was lying and that depression wasn’t real, and the way the person’s eyes lit up at the mahjong table was proof that she wasn’t experiencing the symptoms she claimed. Even at a young age, I questioned that line of thinking, but my father’s strong opinions on mental health left their mark. Years later, when I began experiencing severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, I found it nearly impossible to talk to my parents about it.

I’m not alone in my struggles, because everyone struggles with their mental health at some point. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), however, are three times less likely than white Americans to seek mental health services. Worse, suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for Asian Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. 

All of us—no matter our background—deserve support and help to get through hard times. If you’re dreading “the talk” about your mental health with your parents or caregivers, here are some tips to prepare.

Before the Conversation

Understand Your Family History 

Your family members could be dealing with unprocessed, untreated trauma related to immigration, racism, and more. Many AAPI immigrant families may also be living with intergenerational trauma (trauma that is actually passed down through our genes or what experts call epigenetics). 

Families across all races, including Asian American ones, may have a history of mental health conditions that are not talked about due to stigma, fear, and lack of awareness. Understanding this can help you better understand their reactions. 

Write Down Thoughts and Practice the Talk in Advance 

Practicing may help you feel more confident so that when you feel stressed in the moment, you can stay on message.

Check Your Expectations

Remember that parents and elders are human. They don’t always react the way you hope. We all want—and deserve—nonjudgmental and unconditional love and support, but we may not get it when we share something new. We can’t control other people’s reactions or feelings, though, so plan how to handle responses that are different than what you hoped for. That could mean being prepared to physically remove yourself, and having someone you trust ready to help you protect your emotional well-being.

Have Your Support System on Standby 

Ask your friends and other trusted adults in advance to be available in case you need to debrief, process, or vent after talking with your family about this difficult topic.

Consider How to Have the Conversation 

A face-to-face talk is ideal, but doing it in written form—such as a text, email, or letter—has benefits too. Doing “the talk” in writing can allow you to better control the flow of the conversation without being interrupted, and it can also provide your family members more time to process before responding.

Decide When to Have the Conversation

If you are in a mental health crisis, the right time is now. Do not wait. Share that you need help right now and require support from a mental health professional.

If you need help right now: 

Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.

Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.

If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. 

If you are just starting to think about mental health support and do not urgently need help, you may decide to choose a quiet place or time when you can have an uninterrupted conversation. That may be during a walk, over a meal, or on a car ride.

Share How Your Mental Health Difficulties Affect Your Life

Use “I” Statements 

When you are discussing your experiences and concerns, do your best to focus on you. We can sometimes get defensive with particularly vulnerable topics and begin to blame or accuse others. That will quickly derail the conversation. Instead of using “you” statements, such as, “You made me feel this way when you did [blank],” say, “I have been feeling anxious lately.”

Be Honest, Specific, Clear, and Direct 

Be specific about how these feelings and experiences affect your ability to function in your daily life. You could say something like, “I have been feeling overwhelmed with school work, and it’s making me unable to fall asleep because I’m worried about everything. Not sleeping and not eating well is making me sick.”

Let Your Parents Know Exactly What You Need

Be specific. Prepare your requests and reasons, and how they will help you. Examples of specific asks are help getting a therapist appointment, attending a meeting with you and your school guidance counselor, and allowing you to pause or quit an extracurricular activity or class.

Talk About Solutions With “and” in Mind Instead of “or”

Parents and caregivers can quickly go into solution-focused mode. They may start with alternative suggestions, such as praying, meditating, or acupuncture. They may recommend talking to them or an uncle, aunt, or pastor instead of a therapist. Instead of fighting that advice, simply say, “Yes, we can do that—and I want to seek professional help too.” Acknowledging other methods of healing can be useful in reminding your family you want the same end result.

Remind Parents and Family of Shared Goals

Remind your parents and family that improving your mental health is key to working toward shared goals for your wellness. Your personal reason for seeking therapy could be to feel less depressed and anxious, for example, and the shared goal with your family could be you being able to enjoy school and extracurricular activities.

Learn more ways to talk about your mental health with your family

Circle Back and Try Again

Parents need time to process too. They may think it’s all their fault and need time to realize it isn’t. It may help to take a break and try again later.

When circling back, talk to trusted members in your family’s support network, such as uncles and aunts who have experience with mental health issues and may be able to act as an ally and advocate for you. (“Trusted” is key, though, since it has the potential to backfire if your parents feel ashamed or unready to discuss the issues with folks outside immediate family.)

When you bring someone into your emotional space and tell them you are suffering, it is natural for people to want to know if you are feeling better. Start having more than one conversation about mental health, and make it a habit in your family’s check-ins or dinner table talk.

Remember What Is (and Is Not) in Your Control

You cannot control how others feel, think, or react. Your goal for the talk isn’t to control how others feel, it’s to share important information about your health and to get help.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.