Why Mental Health History Matters

In my family, the recurrent diagnosis of bipolar disorder wasn’t spoken about.
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By: Finley Davis

We see our families as a representation of ourselves. We want them to reflect well on us and vice versa. So when we talk about a history of health in our family, why are people so open about a history of physical health issues, like stroke or cancer, but ashamed about a history of mental illness? In my family, the recurrent diagnosis of bipolar disorder wasn’t spoken about. The kids didn’t know and the adults kept it quiet. But why? When I asked my mom about it, she resulted to the default “I just didn’t think it would affect you”. My mom kept these diagnoses quiet for years, part of which she admitted, was out of shame.

“I think there’s a part of you that’s a little bit embarrassed by it.” my mom said. The mental health counselor, Shelly Ball, at my school echoed this. “Many people still imagine that mental health is associated with some sort of weakness. They think of mental illness as the fault of the person, or fault of the family,” said Shelly. She added, “When I’m interviewing or assessing kids, I’m curious about their family’s history because it’s going to create a red flag, but it’s not going to create a prediction.” Family history definitely plays a role in mental health diagnosis, but it does way more than that. The personal narrative we grow up developing can change how transparent we are to the world. My mom’s childhood was filled with constant negative episodes from her family.

My mom grew up with a mother and brother who are both diagnosed as bipolar. She describes the unpredictability of her mother, as the hardest thing to deal with. “It was really difficult because things were very unpredictable, one day it could be her cooking and cleaning and being positive and then two days later she can’t get out of bed.” said my mom. This got me thinking, did experiences like these make my mom think being open about relatives’ diagnoses would change how we see our family members? Other family members have refused to acknowledge these diagnoses. My mom recalled how her dad doesn’t understand why her brother behaves the way he does. He has often critiqued the recommendation of medication and dismissed mental illnesses as “made up diseases.” According to Shelly, this way of thinking isn’t rare. “I mean some people just blatantly just don’t believe in mental health disorders,” Shelly said.

By being open about a history of mental health in your family, we can destigmatize it and create an open means of communication and more accurate diagnoses. People who grew up in unpredictable environments like my mom only interacted with mental illness on a harmful level. This can make them less likely to want to be vocal on such an intimate topic. When they’re met with dismissive opinions that fail to even acknowledge the existence of mental health, it further stigmatizes themselves and their family. In the end, both Shelly and my mom stressed the importance of speaking out.

As part of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re focusing on treatment and the stigma around getting help. Check out our coverage here and share your story at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.