Taboo Talk: Telling Your Family Members About Depression or Burnout

Two years ago, I attended a personal development class in university. All attendants were divided into smaller groups. I sat with a young man and woman and we had to introduce ourselves. I remember that the girl was telling that she suffered from a burnout and her parents were supportive. We asked her more questions about her experience and during the conversation I thought to myself, “if I am ever going to suffer from a depression or burnout, would I tell my parents?” The answer was clear to me, NO. Over the years, I have noticed that many friends decide not to tell their parents about their mental health issues. Last week, I asked the question to my followers on Instagram. Thank you for participating dear followers! A majority of 58% voted no, they would not tell their family members and 42% voted yes, they would tell it. There is still a stigma on mental health issues, and everyone has different reasons for not telling family members about it.

Statistics on Depression

  • Annually, around 135.600 adults suffer from depression for the first time in the Netherlands [1]
  • In 2016, around one million people suffered from depression in the Netherlands[2]
  • Total expenditure on depression care is estimated at approximately 1.6 billion euros on an annual basis in the Netherlands [3]
  • Around 1% of children below the age of 12 experience depression, in the ages 12-16 this percentage increases to 4% [4]
  • In 2030, depression will be among the top three disorders with the greatest burden of disease globally[5]

Reasons for telling or not telling family members

I was curious to know the factors behind telling or not telling family members about it, so I have interviewed 5 women who have not told their parents, siblings, or partner about their mental health issues. Over the course of time, some have decided to tell their family. They all suffered from mood, energy, or panic disorders, such as depression or burnout. The reasons that they indicated for not telling their family about their mental health are (fear of) a lack of understanding, shame, self-reliance, and not making relatives concerned.

One participant said “I prefer to keep things to myself and solve problems by myself. I always found that asking others for help gives off the idea that I am burdening others with my problems.”

Another participant stated “At first, my family didn’t understand it. Mental health was an undiscussed topic at home. After a while, when I started to understand and accept my mental health issue, I started to tell them more and more about how I felt about something, what triggered me, and how that affected my mood. Since I involved them more in my daily life, they understood my situation better.”

The reasons are related to the self (internal) and the other (external). Internal reasons are feeling ashamed, having the idea that they need to be self-reliant. External reasons are a lack of understanding by the other, to what extent mental health issues are taboo, and overprotectiveness by the other. The latter reason is why I would not want to tell my parents, because they are overprotective, and I don’t want them to worry even more. I would argue that many reasons are influenced by culture and upbringing. For example, in collectivistic cultures, such as the Asian culture, family interests are placed above individual interests. People grow up with the idea “as long as my family is doing okay, I am doing okay”. The moment when a person starts to experience problems as an individual, it is less likely that this person is going to ask for help or tell others. On top of that, in Asian cultures, mental health is still a taboo. I grew up with the idea that there are sane and insane people. Insane people need help from a mental health professional. The gap between sane and insane was non-existent. This gap is now filled with people who are still sane, but just go through a rough time and are not able to overcome it by themselves. Mental health professionals are there to help these people. It is not the case that you have gone berserk when you get help from a psychologist. My parents’ generation did not include the importance of mental health within the upbringing, but I believe that my generation and future generations will change this. Mental health issues are becoming gradually normalised.

Reaction of family members

As mentioned before, some interviewees have told their family over the course of time about their depression or burnout. I asked them how their family members reacted to their “coming out”.

 “They reacted rather carelessly, but also lightly. Others (extended family) were proud of me.”

 “Initially, they were harsh, they said what is wrong with you, why are you acting like that. Get help. Until I expressed that I had already sought help, but that I was stuck. That was the moment when I started to explain everything. After 7 months of going through everything by myself, I put everything on the table. Eventually, my father and husband asked why I did not tell them earlier. They said that they could have taken my situation and feelings into account and found it frustrating that I keep things to myself.”

How does it feel to the interviewees now that their news is out?

“In the beginning, I felt ashamed of my condition. But after they knew more about it, they were able to support me, and I was super happy that I shared it. It has improved our relationship a lot and I don’t think we could have achieved that if I hadn’t been transparent.”

“It felt like a relief. I could finally tell my story.”

“Once it was known to them, it was quite a relief. We then spent some time in therapy together as a family. I managed to overcome depression through family therapy.”

One participant indicated that she has not told her family about it and she also does not feel like sharing it in the future. I asked her how she thinks that her family will react if they know about it.

She said “Understanding, but it would also make them worried. My mother, for example, already has health problems that is why I prefer to keep things to myself. I don’t want her to worry all the time. Her health got worse already. I’m not much of a talker anyway. So, I don’t feel the need. Also, my situation involves many traumatic events, such as domestic violence, restraining orders, and lawsuits.  I tell my story everywhere – obligated. I just don’t have the energy to share it with others.”


Most interviewees recommend telling family members and/or friends about your mental health situation.

“My advice is to talk. Get everything out. Talking is really the key to success in this case. Don’t keep everything to yourself. Don’t be ashamed of your problems. Problems are there to be solved. It is nice to talk to a stranger who is not involved in the situation, but also to family. […] Just do what you feel comfortable with but talk about it.”

“It may seem difficult to tell others because you think that they will not understand it. But it is better in such situations if you are supported by your family. They can help you.”

“I think you should mainly look at what it will bring you. If it causes more stress, then you might be better off unloading your baggage by talking with a good friend or a health professional.”

“My advice would be to tell it but choose the right momentum. In the Surinamese-Indian culture, mental health is unfortunately not part of the upbringing. That means our parents know little about it. My advice is therefore to share it, but only when you can tell a bit more about it. Personally, this stage in my life has taught me that our family just wants us to be okay. If things are not going well, they want to help us. It is nice if they know how they can help us by having the right information.”

To conclude, people react differently to knowing that the interviewees went through a depression or burnout. Some felt very supported others not so much, but what I found interesting is that they all say that it is a relief. And maybe that is the “prize” that they have won regardless of how their family reacted. I do think it is important to keep in mind what it will bring you as one of the participants mentioned. If you know that telling others gives you more stress, then you should not do it. On the other hand, you are taking away the opportunity from your family to support you. The decision to tell or not tell depends on your personal circumstances. I believe that only you can decide what’s best for you. It can help to make a list with advantages and disadvantages of all possible scenarios and the most important thing is that you prioritize how a scenario makes YOU feel. Always seek help from another person, whether that is a family relative, a friend, or a mental health professional.

A massive thank you to the interviewees! With your insightful answers, I was able to write this blog post! You are an inspiration to me, and I wish you all the best with healing. 💖  

[1] Ministerie van VWS (2017)

[2] CBS (2016)

[3] Ministerie van VWS (2017)

[4] Ministerie van VWS (2017)

[5] De Graaf et al., 2016, p. 36; Mathers & Loncar, 2006 p.1

Photo credits: People vector created by pch.vector –

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