Nature or nurture: it’s an age-old question in mental health. If you’ve seen certain mental health disorders that run in your family, you may start wondering if the reason is genetic.
While there is not a clear answer, it is believed that mental illness has both hereditary and environmental factors. If you’re wondering about the role of the family in mental illness, keep reading to learn about everything from cause to support.
Does Mental Illness Run in Families?
There is some research that would indicate that certain mental health disorders do have genetic factors. One study looked at hereditary mental illness in individuals with:
During this study, the researchers looked at the genetic variations in people with the five disorders listed above. They then compared those genetic codes to people who did not have one of those disorders.
It was found that a common genetic variation accounted for around 17 to 28 percent of the risk of all of the listed disorders.
The numbers indicate that yes, there is a genetic component to mental health disorders; however, just because you may have parents with a mental illness, it doesn’t automatically mean you will have it as well.
There are still many environmental factors at play.
One common thing you will see when looking at families with mental health diagnoses is that environment can play a huge role. One treatment model that has been gaining popularity for families with trauma is Family Centered Treatment.
In this model, one thing that gets completed is a genogram.
A genogram is essentially a family tree that maps behavioral patterns, medical disorders, mental health, trauma, and more. You can even include non-family members on this map if they are close enough for connection.
What is seen in a lot of families is that through the generations, there are often patterns of trauma. It’s not just the daughter who has been sexually abused, but also the mother and the grandmother.
If you were to build a genogram of your family, what would it look like? Within your own genogram, you might be able to see some of the environmental factors that play a role.
Stressful life factors can undoubtedly play a significant role in the development of a mental health disorder. For example, the number of diagnoses of mental health disorders has been on the rise during the pandemic.
How Does Mental Health Impact the Family?
At least 8.4 million people in the United States provide care to an adult with a mental health disorder. Families not only become caregivers, but there is an emotional impact as well.
When you see a family member suffering, it’s challenging to know what to do or how to respond. Having a family member with a mental health disorder can impact your family financially and emotionally.
Children of parents with mental health disorders are at risk too. Because children do not understand mental health disorders, this can cause feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Later in life, this can lead to a mental health diagnosis.
Struggles for Family Members and Caregivers
Family members and caregivers of individuals with mental health disorders can experience various struggles. However, there are a few common ones that are often experienced.
Often you will see mental illness become the primary focus of the family. It’s front and center of everything they do.
Different family members will have different views of the problem at hand. They may also have different ideas about what solutions should be.
It’s very easy for family members and caregivers to experience compassion fatigue. They may also experience feelings of helplessness, frustration, loss, and guilt.
How Do You Care for Yourself as a Family Member or Caregiver?
Knowing how to care for yourself as a family member or caregiver of an individual with a mental health disorder is just as important as knowing how to support them.
If you do not first care for yourself, you will not be able to support them.
It can be a struggle when a family member has a mental health diagnosis. One of the most important things you can do is educate yourself.
What does this mean for them? What kind of things should you be aware of? Understanding their disease will help you know how to help them.
Be patient with yourself and with your family member. There may be times when you become frustrated because you don’t understand the inner battle they’re waging.
Take a moment to take a step back and be patient and hear them. If you do get frustrated, don’t beat yourself up.
It’s okay to get frustrated and not know how to cope. Be patient with yourself and take that as a moment to educate yourself. This will help you learn how to respond in the future.
It’s okay to be there and support the people you love. However, if you don’t set clear boundaries, it can affect your relationship.
They can intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of you. You can also find yourself becoming burnt out and unable to support them.
You must take care of yourself. The statement that you have to take care of yourself before you can care for them might be overused; however, that’s because it’s true.
You need to remember to take time for your own mental health. Step away and breathe and take care of yourself.
Taking care of yourself will allow you to continue providing support for the family members you love.
Part of self-care is knowing when it’s time to seek out support for yourself. You might feel like there’s no one in your life that you can talk to about what’s going on.
You might feel that you are alone. If this is the case, consider finding support groups that are going through the same things.
You might also want to consider seeing a counselor yourself. This can help give you a space where you can express your frustration and struggles.
A counselor can also help you learn more about your loved one’s diagnosis. They can help you learn how to set boundaries and practice self-care.
If you’re involved in church, consider talking to a pastor who could help.
Have you ever felt guilty for how you are feeling towards someone in your family with a mental health disorder? This is a common feeling.
However, it can become unhealthy if you don’t address it appropriately. Feelings of guilt and shoving down your own feelings will eventually cause you to become overwhelmed.
Accepting your own feelings and learning to be okay with them and how to work through them is essential.
It’s essential to learn the difference between helping and enabling. Helping is when you step in and help your family member with something they could typically do but are currently unable to do.
Enabling is when you stop consequences for their actions from occurring. They don’t have to face the consequences because you stepped in and took care of it.
How Do You Support a Family Member With a Mental Health Disorder?
If you do have a family member with a mental health disorder, how do you support them? This is an important question.
You want to support your family member, but at the same time, you need to draw clear boundaries. Without them, the relationship could quickly become unhealthy for all parties involved.
There are various ways you can support your family members while maintaining clear boundary lines.
One of the most significant ways you can support your family members is by knowing the signs of mental health disorders. This can help you know when need to encourage your family members to seek help.
Some of the signs you’ll look for on a mental illness symptoms checklist include:
This list is not comprehensive, and it is also possible to see mental health disorders appear as physical symptoms. This could include headaches, back pain, stomach pain, or other aches and pains that are unexplained by another reason.
Encourage Your Family Member to Seek Help
One of the most significant things you can do for your family member is to encourage them to seek help. You should never put yourself in the role of their therapist (even if you are one).
While you cannot force them to seek help, encouraging them might be the extra push they need. This can be as simple as sitting down with them and having a conversation about what you have noticed.
You can go from there and encourage them to talk to someone. If you already have a trusted medical provider, that’s a great option.
If your family member is harming themselves, others, or talking about suicide, this is where you can step in. Have a plan in place of what to do if your loved one is harming themselves or others.
Having a plan can help ease your mind and take some of the stress out of the situation should it occur. Instead of wavering back and forth on what to do, you’ll know what to do.
You can work together with your family members’ providers to create that plan.
If you don’t have a plan in place and this occurs, call 911. Calling 911 can help them get taken to the hospital and evaluated. Calling 911 may even be a part of your plan.
However, even within this, it’s important to realize that you may not see signs of this. If someone you love does harm themselves, know it’s not your fault.
Help Address Barriers
There are various barriers that may come into play for your loved one. If they’re struggling to get the treatment they need, you can help them research and find providers.
You can also help them find ways to get to treatment or offer to watch kids while they go to treatment. Some of the most significant barriers to treatment are transportation and childcare.