Just as physical conditions such as heart disease and cancer run in families, so do some mental disorders. Autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia are among the mental illnesses that have been found to have common genetic factors.
Knowing whether members of your family have been affected by mental illness is important because you can get screened or be alert for symptoms that can be treated early, when medication or psychotherapy are most effective. When we know that family members have experienced an illness, we can also learn how they managed it, or look to them for support. But family members must be willing to share this information with each other.
Thanksgiving is an ideal time to discuss physical and mental health issues that run in the family, which is why it is also Family Health History Day.
The Knowledge to Thrive
Talking helps young people understand that “yes, you may have been at risk because of your family history, but you can get the help and build the skills and the muscles you need in order to be your best self,” says Reetika Kumar, M.D., Independence Blue Cross market medical executive and VP of strategic clinical solutions.
When her own daughter faced anxiety, Dr. Kumar discovered how important it was “to normalize anxiety for a child, and to openly talk about the times that I feel anxious or sad, because children think that life is all perfect for adults. For us as a family, it became important to talk openly about mental health challenges and how we’re going to help each other.”
Knowing that a close relative struggles with anxiety or depression might be stressful, but if that stress leads to getting screened and following through with the right actions, then it was a necessary stress that led to a good outcome, Dr. Kumar says.
The Questions to Ask
So how exactly should we bring up the issue at the table or when sitting around the house together?
Something as simple as, “How are you feeling? How are you doing? Are you feeling content and happy?” can be a good start, Dr. Kumar says. “Are you sleeping well?” might also yield clues, as sleep disturbances are often closely associated with mental health issues.
If you are the one who is struggling, ask if any other people experienced what you’re feeling. Did a relative who passed away have anxiety or depression? Questions like this might encourage family members to open up to help you.
Family members who are adopted should likewise feel comfortable starting a conversation and seeking family support. People who don’t share the same genetic background but who know each other intimately can still offer insights and help create a supportive atmosphere in which talking about mental health is normal.
Create a Safe Space
“There are things we can do every day to build our resilience and promote brain health. But there comes a time when you could be doing all of those things and you still need treatment. And it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s truly a chemical imbalance in the brain that requires treatment,” Dr. Kumar says.
So, this Thanksgiving, create a safe space for discussing family mental health history. Be the person who’s willing to be vulnerable and put it out there, Dr. Kumar urges. “The more we talk about mental health, the more we work towards removing the stigma that enables people to get the help they need in a timely way.”
For more information about depression, self-care strategies and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.