Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Mental Health Family Tree

Although I love both the visual and the sentiment expressed by the above graphic, I beg to differ.  I do not claim to speak for everyone's experience, but it has been my own experience that when the branches of that family tree contain mental illness or mental health issues, the roots do not keep us all together.  The roots divide us.  Sometimes permanently.

My diagnosis of PTSD came in my mid-30s, but I had suffered bouts of anxiety and depression since early childhood.  My 13-year-old son was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder at the age of 7.  Even now, as I watch him struggle to manage this diagnosis, I see shades of a younger me, and wish that I had received the kind of healthcare, therapy, and family support that he receives.  My goal is to equip him with the tools to deal with this diagnosis at a young age, so as not to struggle with it into adulthood like so many of us do.  I am determined to ensure that his road is smoother than mine was.  Life will bring bumps and potholes, but he will have the tools to deal with those inevitable stumbles.
This is a tricky post to write without "outing" things that people clearly do not wish to discuss, so I will speak in wide generalities and hope that the kickback is minimal.  We will see.....
Based on factual information that I have available to me through family members, family tree research, and war records, I feel it is safe to say that I am a 3rd generation sufferer of mental health issues.  My son is 4th generation.  I believe we are also 3rd and 4th generation mental health sufferers on the other side of my family tree as well, but the silence runs deep there so I really have nothing but my own experiences and speculation to back that up.
The research on whether anxiety and other mental health issues are hereditary seems a bit wishy-washy.  Some experts say there is no connection.  Others say that family history can indicate a stronger tendency towards mental health issues, but there is no proof that they are, in fact, hereditary.  Again, I beg to differ.  I find it hard to believe that 4 generations of mental health issues in the same family would be considered coincidence.  If there were 4 generations of breast cancer, modern medicine would state irrefutably that there was a history of breast cancer in the family and that the gene was hereditary.  But not so much with mental health.
And why is that?  Well, my belief is two-fold.  1) Since mental health and its diagnostic tools are relatively new, I don't think professionals and scientists yet know how to determine what gene, hereditary trait, etc to isolate and research in order to determine this with certainty.  I hope they will get there in the very near future.  2) The mental health stigma.  It is alive and well, people.  We have taken leaps and bounds in the past few years to try and break the stigma surrounding mental illness, but many, many people are still afraid to talk about it or admit to their struggles with it.  Many go undiagnosed because they fear even speaking to a health care provider.
I found a huge sense of relief when war discharge papers I was sent from 1945 stated "doesn't like crowds of people."  Thank God!  A clue!  Does this mean, for sure, that this person had some kind of social anxiety?  Well, no.  But given the other history I know of this person, and how they lived their life post-war, my unprofessional opinion is that yes, this person did suffer from social anxiety, and possibly much more.  But no one speaks of it.
The other side of the family tree is just as silent.  We are heading back to see the Child Psychologist in a few weeks for an assessment that is due now that my son is 13.  We were asked to bring a comprehensive family history of mental health issues with us to this appointment.  In my constant quest for answers, and my desire to know "why" people do the things they do and make the choices that they make, I had hoped my quest for information would bring me not only some useful medical information for my son's doctor, but some answers to the questions I have about myself and my family, and why we are the way we are.  I was to be bitterly disappointed.
I sent an email to 11 people on that particular side of my family.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, even siblings.  I received 2 responses.  One said they were not aware of any issues, and another shared their own experiences that I will pass along to my son's doctor.  From the other 9 people I received radio silence.  From FAMILY!!  Why?  The mental health stigma.  Could I be wrong?  Possibly.  But I bet if that email was regarding a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer and I was looking for family history people would have been willing to share.  In fact, a cancer diagnosis in the family a few years ago spread like wildfire with people making sure everyone knew and got themselves the proper tests at the proper age.  Not so with mental health.  And the fear runs so deep that even responding was impossible for most.  You do not fear that which is not happening.  If there is no diabetes in your family then sending a quick email to say "no history of that in our family that I know of" would be second nature.  Not so with mental illness.
This has been a tough pill for me to swallow.  That the fear runs so deep that sending an email to assist in the health care treatment of a 13-year-old boy was too much to ask.
And so,  although I  love the graphic at the top of this post, I must strongly disagree.  When it comes to mental illness, our roots do not keep us all together.  They divide us.  And they keep us silent.
~ The Lazy Gourmet

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