Sharing Mental Health Information in Your Family: Key Takeaways

Date Posted

January 11, 2024


Allison Paganini, RN

Sharing Mental Health Information Image Two Men on Couch

Gathering information about your own family’s history can help shed light on patterns and traits that are present across generations. Understanding hereditary components of mental illness helps to validate the origins of disease and may strengthen your sense of identity. Having conversations with family members about mental health, however, isn’t always easy. In FFDA’s October 2023 webinar, “Sharing Mental Health Information in Your Family,” psychiatrist, Bruce Cohen, MD, PhD explains the genetic components of mental health and Kenyatta Berry, a genealogist and TV host, discusses ways to navigate difficult conversations with family members regarding mental health history. Here are some key takeaways from the webinar.

Mental Health and Genetics: Dr. Bruce Cohen

Inherited genetic factors play an important role in how we turn out. But genes are not our destiny. Other factors such as environment/homelife, how we were reared, and personal experiences all determine our risk for mental health problems.

Half our genes come from our mothers and half from our fathers. In determining genetic risks, what we see in parents, siblings, and children matters most.

There are companies that offer genetic testing, but these tests do not adequately detect the major determinants of illness or treatment response.

We learn a lot about our personality traits, behaviors, thinking patterns by looking at our family members. Gathering evidence about psychiatric disorders, medical conditions, and any behavioral or social issues within a family will help support accurate diagnosis.

Gathering information: Kenyatta Berry

Knowing that a certain illness runs in your family can help you stay proactive in your own health journey and can help guide appropriate support and treatment.

  • Start by talking with parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles, cousins.
  • Consult public health record and online resources to compensate for gaps in knowledge.
  • Document information and stay organized.
  • Consider genetic testing (but understand its limitations).

Tough conversations: Kenyatta Berry

Stigma and secrecy can make it difficult to talk about family mental health history. Here are the tips that Kenyatta Berry shared to make the process a bit easier.

  • Set the stage by establishing an appropriate time and place.
  • Understand that not everybody will be comfortable having conversations about mental illness in the family. Have patience. Be persistent.
  • Be honest about your motivations for asking questions.
  • Respect boundaries.
  • Know you may have to have multiple conversations.
  • Remain compassionate and nonjudgmental when uncovering sensitive information.
  • Prepare yourself to hear uncomfortable stories.

While we’ve hit on some key points here, keep in mind that this topic is incredibly nuanced. The information discussed in the webinar is pertinent to everyone. Become familiar in the fascinating science of how genes determine who we are and listen to leading experts about ways of talking with family members about sensitive information.