Talking About Your Family’s Mental Health History

Being able to spend time with loved ones during the holidays – whether in person, on a phone call or video chat – is a great way to connect with family. These conversations can cover all kinds of topics. An important one we might not think to talk about is our family’s mental health history. 

As we start to better understand how serious medical problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and some types of cancer can run in familiesit’s important to create open conversations within families. Being open about an older generations’ heath challenges can give younger generations important information about what issues may be present in their family tree. It can help them be prepared for problems they might face someday, give them time to make preventative lifestyle changes, and allow them to watch for early symptoms. 

Health issues run in families 

Our mental health is no different. Research has shown there are some mental health issues and psychiatric disorders that run in families. Scientists say these include autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the National Institutes for Health. It is estimated these health conditions are about 75% inherited. 

In addition, anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD and other major depressive disorders can be genetically linked 45% of the time, according to an article in Psychology Today. Health issues like alcohol dependence and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are more than 50% inherited.  

My Family Health Portrait 

Some people who are aware their relatives have struggled with anxiety issues have decided to add meditation and regular exercise into their schedules as a preventative measure. In other situations, children or grandchildren of alcoholics have decided not to drink any alcohol as adults. 

But before relatives can make these decisions or keep an eye out for symptoms, a family’s health history is a key topic to be discussed. To make this easier, the U.S. Surgeon General has created My Family Health Portrait, an online tool that helps people gather information and create a family health history. The details can be updated as you learn more about relatives and can be shared with your family doctor. It includes space to record more than a dozen mental health diagnoses, from dementia to panic disorder.   

Tips for gathering history 

Doctors recommend having this type of broad family health history in general, however, when collecting information about a relative’s mental health, some people might initially be reluctant to discuss this, even with other family members. The Mayo Health Clinic has some tips for how to gather these details:  

  • Explain why you are doing thisDescribe it as a broad effort that can help determine if there are specific diseases or health conditions that run in your family.  
  • Give them different ways to answer your questions: Your aunt may want to share her information by email, while your grandmother may feel more comfortable talking about it face-to-face or on the phone. 
  • Watch your wordingQuestions should be straightforward and short. 
  • Prepare to be a good listener: If you are asking people about their health, be ready to listen without interrupting or commenting on their issues. 


Photo credit: Getty 

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