Piecing Together My Family’s Mental Health History

Health Writer
Elizabeth Millard

For weeks after my father’s suicide, I navigated through his personal papers like a sailor gone blind. What had once been so familiar — his handwriting, humor, and way of telling a story — now became dark and treacherous. Each new exploration brought fresh, seemingly insurmountable waves that crashed down on everything about my family I believed to be true.

As a psychologist, my father was adept at describing emotions and mental tangles for his clients, but I had no idea he’d been doing the same for himself. During the last year of his life, we’d had some conversations about how he was coping with thoughts of suicide — my stepmother had taken her life in a horrible, single shot, right in front of him — and he’d revealed some childhood traumas that gave me new understanding about his personality.

But it wasn’t until after his own death, just a day before the anniversary of his wife’s passing, that I got to know who my father really was. And from that experience, I learned more about my family than I’d ever thought possible.

When history is personal

In his notes, my father left rich, nuanced details about the depression he’d fought his entire life. He’d been plagued by insecurity, anxiety, and hopelessness. He believed no one truly loved him, not even his children. That revelation was so haunting to me when I read it that I considered burning the rest of his journals unread.

Instead, fortunately, I went to my aunt Mary. As his estranged sister, Mary hadn’t seen my father for over a decade, but she wasn’t surprised by what I’d been reading. She started to fill in some of the gaps in the journals, and my deep pain began to have a tinge of illumination and even curiosity, especially as Mary started talking about her own mental health struggles, including a diagnosis of schizophrenia in her early 20s.

The journals, and that conversation, led to years of story collecting—not just about my father and aunt, but about everyone on both sides of my family. I turned from a wayward sailor to historian, and it was an emotional journey well worth taking.

As a health journalist, I’d learned the value of collecting as much information as I could about the illnesses within my family, as a way to minimize my own health risks. For example, the long line of cancers and heart disease diagnoses led me to ditch my pack-a-day smoking habit. The prevalence of obesity led me to make a greater effort with my nutrition and exercise habits.

But I hadn’t considered mental health histories, even though there’s ample evidence that some issues — like depression, alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia — run in families.

For instance, someone’s lifetime chance of developing schizophrenia is 1 in 100. But if a parent has the condition, it jumps to 13 in 100. If both parents struggle with the condition, your chance is 45 in 100.

Similarly, genetics can play a role in alcoholism, since your risk for addiction involves how your genes direct your body to metabolize alcohol, and how nerve cells regulate activity in your brain. These gene changes can be passed down from one generation to the next.

I can’t change my genetics, of course. But I can make choices, as I did with smoking and anti-obesity efforts, to counteract those risks through meaningful lifestyle changes. And I resolved to do the same for my mental wellbeing.

A family tree of mental health

Although it’s been extraordinarily valuable to hear about the mental health challenges within my family, collecting that information wasn’t always easy. There’s a stigma about these issues, and even though my father was a psychologist, most family members resisted treatment, even for problems that were clearly treatable, like depression. Here are some strategies that helped:

- Be clear about your purpose. People opened up to me more when I told them I was collecting a family health history, including mental health. That led to conversations that started with illnesses and conditions, but then moved into behaviors. Simply saying something like, “Tell me about Grandpa Arthur, what was he really like?” was counterproductive. People need to know why you want the information.

- Hold the microphone. In broadcast journalism, there’s a technique that on-air reporters do to get great quotes: They hold the microphone up to interviewees even when that person has stopped talking. Being “on the spot” like that often leads to deeper insights because the one being interviewed rushes to fill the silence. When discussing these issues with family members, remember that they might be uncomfortable at times, and may go silent. Don’t scramble to fill that quiet with more questions. Just wait, and you may be rewarded.

- Share the information. I knew that I would gain new insights from collecting these stories, but I didn’t realize that others in the family would, too. My brother also had no idea about my father’s or my aunt’s mental health history. Giving him the knowledge I’d gained gave him the power to find ways to cope with some struggles he’d been having, too.

Knowing my family mental health history is helping me see my own mental health in new ways.

Most notably, I shifted from being an every-single-day drinker to sober, a move I’d been wanting to do but couldn’t. After finding out that alcoholism is extremely prevalent in both sides of my family — and had led to my grandmother’s death when she was 49, the age I am now &mdash I found it much easier to take that big step.

With time and numerous family conversations, I navigated my way back from the jagged rocks of trauma over my father’s death, and toward a new way of seeing. With greater understanding about my family’s emotional depths, I feel more focus and clarity than ever before.

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