What does having a family history of mental health really mean?
My first counseling session was while I was an undergraduate student at a historically black university. I could not have imagined the value of counseling, the impact it would have on my life, and who I was as a person. At the age of 19, I had the privilege to speak to someone who had an appearance similar to mine. I was experiencing some challenges and was encouraged by a sibling to talk to a counselor. It was the best advice I could have ever received at that moment.
Over the years, I have had to change counselors for various reasons (insurance changes, moving, schedule conflicts, etc.), each of them has had to ask about my family history. In my younger years, my answer was always "no". No one in my family had a diagnosis. Now 15 years later, I realize that there were diagnoses that likely went undiagnosed or flew under the radar. Some situations have been normalized in my culture (being Black) that may not be normal otherwise. Having someone in your family that suffers from addiction may not be strange if most of your friends also have family members that suffer from addiction. Seeing people behave with extreme emotions may be normal to you if that is what your family/community is used to.
While I do not claim to be a mental health specialist, I do think more deeply before answering this question. My answer has evolved over the years and is no longer "no". My answer changed as my awareness of mental health and illness increase, I began to reply with the following answers: "people didn't talk about those things in my family", "my family did not believe in counseling growing up they went to church and talked to the pastors", or "mental health was frowned upon with the older people in my family and so they likely did not get the attention and diagnoses that they needed". Now my response is the following: "while I do not know of any official diagnoses, I believe that if they would have had the services they needed that a diagnosis of XXXX (named mental health diagnosis) would have been given".
Understanding what I do now, I have provided tips below for consideration before answering the question "no":
1) Talk about mental health and illness with your family. "Has anyone ever seen a counselor or psychiatrist in our family"?
2) You may have to rephrase your questions to avoid offending family members that are not open to seeking counseling. "Has anyone had to go to talk about their problems with our pastor (insert name of spiritual authority family refers to)"?
3) You may have to ask about people taking medication to help them with their behavior. "Does anyone in our family take medication to help them focus or help them function better"?
4) You may have to ask if anyone has ever had to go to the hospital for drug or alcohol use/abuse.
5) You may have to ask if anyone has ever attempted to hurt themselves, needed hospitalization due to not eating, or not being able to get out of bed.
6) If you are not able to learn any new information, it is okay to tell the mental health specialist that "you do not know" or "you think that there were people that needed help but never received services".
I have provided a link to a posting below from Psychology Today:
Frye, D. (2011, July 22). Why You Need to Know Your Family’s Mental Health History. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201107/why-you-need-know-your-familys-mental-health-history
Author: Alita-Geri Carter, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC