This story is part of Lit Mag: The REDEFINED Issue.
We see our families as a representation of ourselves. We want them to reflect well on us and vice versa. So when we talk about a history of health in our family, why are people so open about a history of physical health issues, like stroke or cancer, but ashamed about a history of mental illness?
Biehl: I didn’t feel like Chad’s diagnosis or my mom’s diagnosis would directly impact you.
That’s my mom, Brandy Biehl. She’s talking about my Uncle Chad’s diagnosis.
Biehl: Yeah, I think there’s a part of you that’s a little bit, maybe, embarrassed by it.
The mental health counselor at my school, Shelly Ball echoed this.
Ball: Many people still imagine that mental health is associated with some sort of weakness, they think of mental illness as some sort of fault of the person or fault of the family. When I’m interviewing or assessing kids I see, I’m curious about their family’s history because it’s going to create a red flag. It’s not going to create a prediction.
Family history definitely plays a role in mental health diagnosis, but it does way more than that. The personal narrative we grow up developing can change how transparent we are to the world. My mom’s childhood was filled with constant negative episodes from her family.
Biehl: With my mom, it was really difficult because things were very unpredictable. And you know, one day it could be her cooking and cleaning and being really super positive and then two days later she can’t get out of bed. And you know, you come home and you just kind of have to gauge where they are and kind of deal with your life.
This got me thinking. Did experiences like these make my mom think being open about relatives’ diagnoses would change how we see our family members?
Other family members have refused to acknowledge that these diagnoses are even real.
Biehl: My own dad completely doesn’t understand why my brother behaves the way he does. And has often said why do you think he needs medication. He doesn’t have that, that’s made up.
According to Shelly, this way of thinking isn’t rare.
Ball: I mean some people blatantly just don’t believe in mental health disorders.
I started this story with the hopes of finding out why people were so quiet about mental health in their family, but what I found out didn’t surprise me. People who grew up in unpredictable environments like my mom only interacted with mental illness on a harmful level. This can make them less likely to want to be vocal on such an intimate topic. When they’re met with dismissive opinions that fail to even acknowledge the existence of mental health, it further stigmatizes themselves and their family. In the end, both Shelly and my mom stressed the importance of speaking out.
Biehl: I think if you’re open about it, then you can be proactive.
I am a 16-year-old girl who’d always thought I’d be a doctor. I annoyed my friends with constant updates on the newest medical breakthroughs at lunch and was constantly checking my notifications for New York Times updates. I took AP Biology and interned at health-oriented organizations until I realized that, sure, biology was interesting, but I was more excited to share the news and give my perspective on it than how I felt about the article’s actual content. That’s where I realized what journalism was.
Journalism stood out for me because of the lack of routine. I loved how every day was a different problem to solve with different people to talk to. It made it seem fresh and exciting. I realized that my constant need to talk and share ideas had a place in journalism. It was a way to make people listen to what I had to say and let others share their experiences and stories too. I could focus on anything I wanted, like bringing attention to the stigmas around mental health or why women’s rights are so important.