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Should We Have Known?

Do you have mental health issues in your family tree? If so, when were you made aware of such information? How far does mental illness go back in your family? Was it openly talked about or only brought up when major flares arose?

For most of my life mental health was not a part of the daily conversation, except in extreme cases where somebody was said to be manic and should therefore be avoided. When asked by physicians if there was any mental illness in my family’s history, I’d confidently say, “No,” because that was what I knew to be true. Growing up in a Christian household, things like depression and anxiety were a known sign of spiritual weakness. You just need to trust God and He will take away all your anxieties and fears.

Admitting something like depression, or dare-I-say-it suicidal thoughts, was sinful; only consistent prayer could cure such overwhelming sadness. Just give it to God and you’ll be fine! Even when I was prescribed medicine for a “nervous stomach” as a pre-teen, it never occurred to me that my anxiety was a form of mental illness. Shouldn’t my “nervous stomach” diagnosis have been a red flag that something was affecting my emotional well-being – something unspeakable that nobody else knew about?

I realize I’ve raised a lot of questions here, but it’s something that’s been on my mind lately. There are several people in my life who struggle with mental health issues, including myself and members of my family. Unfortunately, I never knew there was any form of mental illness in my family until I received a call from my mom 15 years ago informing me that my dad was laying on the floor in the living room with a knife to his wrist, wishing for death. This can’t be happening, I thought. My dad is an outreach pastor and has been a minister in church for most of my life. Shock didn’t even begin to describe my thoughts during that conversation.

How long had he struggled with mental health issues? How long had my mom been aware of his struggles? Who else in my family tree had some form of mental illness? These questions still cloud my brain. Several years before this suicidal incident with my dad, I was told by a doctor that I was struggling with depression. I emphatically disagreed. Nobody else in my family had ever dealt with any form of mental health issues. It’s just anxiety.

Reluctantly, I started taking the Paxil she prescribed. I took the medicine AND showed some improvement for two years. When the doctor wanted to change my medicine to something stronger, somebody from my church suggested that maybe I wasn’t trusting God enough. They advised that, though it was my choice, if I gave “it all” to God, He would relieve my anxiety and/or depression so I wouldn't need to depend on medication. After that conversation I went off all medication; I didn’t want to be viewed as a person who couldn’t put all my trust in God.

No amount of trusting God or prayer helped me as much as taking the medicine. I felt like a failure as a Christian. That I couldn’t do it right – I couldn't live right. More anxiety. Many years later, I started having panic attacks that affected my ability to function and communicate effectively at home and at work. It also resulted in a semester-long delay from the classes I was taking toward my Associate degree. I had no choice but to go on medication again.

Should we, my siblings and I, have known about my dad’s struggles? Would it have helped us to know this family history while we were growing up, or when we began our own families? I think it would have helped us to know at least some of what was going on behind the scenes. It would have helped me. Being able to inform my doctors that there was mental illness in our family could have given them insight into treating my mental health more efficiently, which may have improved my parenting and other relationships.

It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help or seek therapy or take medication as prescribed. As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness month, I ask that if you have mental health issues in your family (depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia, personality disorders, etc…), don’t ignore the facts. Please, help yourself and your family’s overall health by bringing awareness to these very treatable mental health issues. (For more information, visit websites for the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, or research other sites to live a healthier, happier life.)

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