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The 25th of November is not just Thanksgiving – it’s also National Family Health History Day – and it’s no coincidence they fall on the same day.
The U.S Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving Day as National Family Health History Day in 2004. The idea is to encourage families to discuss their health histories on a day when everyone is usually together.
It was a smart move; our health is governed partly by our genetics, so knowing our family histories can help us get screened early for certain diseases and take preventative action if available.
It’s not just our physical health history, either. Our genetics also play a role in our mental health, and knowing our family’s mental health history can be hugely helpful when seeking support, diagnosis, and treatment.
3 Reasons Knowing Your Family Mental Health History is Important
Many families find it easier to discuss physical illnesses and ailments, especially of elderly relatives, grandparents, or family members who have already died. Sharing the lives of these loved ones can become warnings to other family members to get checked out and seek medical advice.
But it’s often much harder for families to talk about mental health histories.
There are many reasons for this; mental health has been (and continues to be) heavily stigmatized, and many people may have never received a formal or appropriate diagnosis. People with untreated mental health conditions may have behaved in ways the family regarded as disgraceful and so no longer want to discuss or acknowledge these members.
Here are three reasons it’s crucial to have these conversations:
- Understanding your family history can help you manage your mental health in proactive, positive ways: Knowing that there is a history of certain mental health conditions within your family doesn’t automatically mean you will have it too or that you’re necessarily at a higher risk, but it does mean you can be prepared. Knowing the history can help you keep an eye on your mental health, check symptoms, and proactively reach out for the proper support when you need it – before any potential mental health conditions become a more significant challenge.
- It can help you get access to the right treatment quickly: If you are experiencing symptoms and seek medical support, advising your therapist of your family history gives them a great starting point for diagnosing you and creating an appropriate treatment plan quickly. This can remove unnecessary tests and trials with the wrong treatments and help get you access to treatment much faster.
- It can help you feel less alone: Experiencing any form of mental health condition can feel incredibly lonely, isolating, and even as though you’ve ‘done something wrong’ to cause the condition. Being aware that some conditions run in families and there is a history in yours can help you feel much less alone. This knowledge can be extremely empowering and give you the confidence to seek support and treatment without shame, knowing it’s a part of your genetic history and has nothing to do with you being a ‘bad’ person.
3 Ways to Open Up Discussions About Family Mental Health History
Talking about mental health can be challenging, especially for some family members. Where mental health histories may have gone untreated, unacknowledged, and unaccepted, drawing up a record of them may be difficult.
But it’s important to try. Even if you can only uncover more recent information, you could see this as your opportunity to change the narrative for good in your own family around mental health.
Here are three ways you could get started:
- Draw a genealogy tree: Get creative – you can do this digitally or old school with craft paper and pens. Have everyone get involved and start drawing out an ‘Our Family Health History’ Tree. You don’t have to complete it in one sitting, but it’s a great starting point that everyone can keep adding to and coming back in the years ahead.
- Put together a binder of family health history: This one might be much easier to do digitally. You can give the whole family access to a personal folder in a shared online drive, where they can keep medical records up to date. It could be a beneficial activity for everyone involved and help others to highlight and clarify medical needs. You could even add a little folder where family members can say when they need support. For example, suppose Grandma is having a minor operation and needs some extra help around the house. In that case, you could create a shared roster for help. Or, if another family member is having therapy, they might say they could use a support phone call the day before/after.
- Assign everyone to write down any health concerns to share: Normalize talking about health by making a part of the conversation on Thanksgiving. You can ask everyone to write down a question, concern, or piece of information they know about the family health history for an open discussion on the day. Set some ground rules (no judgment, no calling out ‘stupid’ questions, etc.). Make sure everyone has a voice, including young children. You might be surprised by how much everyone wants to share and talk about these things.
Have the Conversation
If you’re worried about bringing up family mental health histories, try not to make it a separate conversation. The more we start to normalize mental health as simply a part of our overall health, the easier it will get to talk about these things.
National Family Health History Day is just one day in the calendar year, but it could be the only day you need to start some vital, valuable, and life-saving conversations with those closest to you.
I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.
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