SHAKING THE FAMILY TREE

If you suffer from a mental illness there’s a good chance that others in your family may too. Thing is, Aunty Daph isn’t likely to volunteer the fact that Uncle Cedric was a card carrying member of the KKK or her daughter Gladys used to run naked down the main street of Wagga screaming obscenities. You’re going to have to ask her, politely.

Being a sensitive topic, you’ll need a bit of courage and even more diplomacy to raise the issue successfully. You’ll also need to be honest about why you’re interested. Approach Aunty Daph in the privacy of her own home and confide that you’ve been having problems and there’s a good chance you’ll hear every graphic detail of Cedric’s escapades with pillow cases.

Sometimes you get lucky. Years ago, my father and uncle approached me individually to let me know that my grandmother had taken her life a few months after I’d been born. The accepted story from my mother was that her mother had died from a heart attack. My mother may never have known the truth but I was grateful to my uncle and father for telling me. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone. I wasn’t a freak – I was just ill and illnesses can be managed. I also understood just how tragic such an illness could be.

In the ensuing years I discovered a raft of information that better helped me understand my genetics and the journey they were taking me on. As I discovered relative after relative suffering from everything from anxiety and depression to bipolar, I came to realise that my family tree more closely resembled one of those poor twisted things you’d see in a Tim Burton movie rather than lofty oak with a two-metre round trunk.

The benefit of uncovering this ‘gold’ is twofold. As mentioned, you feel less alienated. Strange though it may seem, knowing about a relative who may have been dead for over a century but suffered as you do can make you feel a little better. Furthermore, your doctors will love you as this information will help them paint a clearer picture of your illness and make an accurate diagnosis more likely.

Sadly however, even amongst your nearest relatives, stigma can thrive. So if you find that mental illness is prevalent in your family, be prepared for the fact that some relatives may reject your request out of hand – which, of course, is their right. 

On the other hand, given mental illness rarely comes up in ‘polite’ conversation, some of your relatives may find speaking about their experiences truly liberating. They may be grateful for the opportunity to open up after possibly years of secrecy. So go ahead and ask for their help. After all, isn’t that what family is for?

As you might imagine, articles regarding the link between genetics and mental illnesses can be quite complex but you won’t need a PhD for this site. A Masters will do just fine:

http://genetics.thetech.org/ask/ask112

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