Why Your Family’s Mental Health History Matters

A local expert explains why it's important to be aware and open about the mental illness in your family.

Eliminating the stigma of mental illness starts at home – and not just by teaching your kids the importance of good mental health.

It’s also about how you confront the mental illness that has occurred in your own family. Experts say acknowledging and being open about that history could be the difference between a child growing up hiding how she feels and one who knows it’s OK to ask for help.

“It helps normalize it,” says Kevin Fischer, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If we normalize it and talk about the history of mental health in our family, then I think people would look at it much differently, be more comfortable and maybe take preventative measures.”

In today’s society, there’s often a major gap between the types of family health history people are willing to share. Most wouldn’t hesitate, for example, to talk about a grandparent’s history of heart disease or cancer.

“We’re really comfortable disclosing that,” Fischer says, whether it’s in a conversation with friends or on a health history form at the doctor’s office.

But talking about that same grandparent’s depression? Some see it as shameful – a perception that’s caused by and perpetuates the damaging stigma surrounding mental illness.

“People tend to not be open about it because of the stigma. Because of that stigma, people are ashamed to be public about it,” he explains. “They may be in denial, or they simply don’t want it attached to them.”

But knowing your family’s mental health history is important, especially since mental illness can run in the family. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, many potential causes can contribute to mental illness, including biological factors, life experiences and a family history of mental health problems.

“Not always, but it can be hereditary,” Fischer adds.

Knowing that history can help people be more mindful of symptoms in themselves or in their children – and it could make them more willing to seek out help.

“Sometimes we overreact because we have a history, but I look at the positive and say at least a parent would be more likely to look for it, identify it in their children and try to take preventative measures,” Fischer says. “(They might) be more willing when they see some of the symptoms to say, ‘Maybe we need some professional help here?’ and seek that help rather than trying to manage it themselves.”

Children should grow up knowing that mental illness “should be treated like any other physical illness.”

“We need to have that conversation with our children,” he says. “Just as we should be talking with them about not drinking or smoking or doing drugs, we should be proactively talking to them about the importance of good mental health and how they’re feeling so we can better understand and help them before we find ourselves in a bad situation.”

The earlier those conversations start, the better – ideally, by around mid-elementary school.

“We’ve found that children are much more willing to talk about mental health and stress and bullying and anxiety than we think,” Fischer says. “Our generation is more in denial and really stigmatizes mental illness more than young people do. The more we talk about how we feel … the increased chance we have to normalize it with them.”

Since mental illness can affect anyone, including those without a family history, parents shouldn’t feel guilt or worry over “passing it on.”

“You control the things you can control and the things that you can’t, you just try to prepare for,” Fischer says. “I think that’s the best advice.”

Brought to you by Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Find more information at FlinnFoundation.org.


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