S. E. Williams |

“Now, I understand what you tried to say to me and how you suffered for your sanity and how you tried to set them free.  They would not listen. They did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now . . . Like the strangers that you’ve met; the ragged men in ragged clothes; the silver thorn of bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.. Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me. How you suffered for your sanity. How you tried to set them free. They would not listen; they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”

-Don McLean

For at least four generations and probably more, mental illness has passed from mother or father to child in my family, like some families pass dimples or gaps in their front teeth. 

Even with this legacy however, we rarely discuss the prevalence of mental illness in our family tree unless we are forced to ban together to help one or the other family member navigate through another mental health crisis. 

This genetic trait comes with the added burden of constant concern and nagging anxiety as we hold our collective breaths as each child, niece, or nephew enters their late teens, the age when it normally appears, because those of us who escaped the gene know it is still possible for a mental illness  to manifest in one of our own children—it has yet to skip a generation.  

And so, as our children, grandchildren and soon great grandchildren enter their late teens we grow anxious if they feel sad and wonder , “Is this a normal down day. . . or . . . is something more serious taking hold?” If they burst with energy over something exciting, we question, “Is this only normal exuberance or a sign of something about to take hold?”  The only way to know for sure—is when you know for sure. 

For the children who escape the illness you question yourself when they fall in love and marry, silently  asking, “Should I sit him/her down and talk about the possibility of passing mental illness along to their own children?”

Although scientists have known for a long while that many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families, current research shows “the association between genes and any psychiatric disorder is complex. As a result, there is currently no definitive test for genetic screening available that can predict whether someone will develop mental illness, like there is for sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis.

To date based on my understanding of the research, it appears science does not fully understand what causes mental illness or why it is passed on in families. What is clear however is that it is not unusual for several types of mental illness to manifest in one family. This can include anxiety, severe depression, bipolar disorders and/or  schizoaffective disorder. 

My grandparents, my parents, and their siblings were blind-sided, unaware of the genetic potential; but in all honesty, although having more information available about mental illness has enabled my generation and the next to react more swiftly when signs appear, too often the tendency toward denial serves as an initial barrier to acknowledging the problem and seeking help. And so, we remain silent even among ourselves. Banding together in times of a mental health crisis and then moving on with our lives as best we can—yet always with a level of trepidation about how to best support the family members who move in and out of episodic events. 

With every major crisis we pray we can manage through and not have to involve the police though there have been more than one occasion when we had no option—we could only pray. And we pray for the wisdom to pull those at times in peril though the stress and dangers associated with suicide ideation. Others who have walked this path know the toll it takes on an extended family. 

I take no comfort in knowing other families live this same reality. In the Black community in particular, Mental Health America reports 16 percent of African Americans deal with a mental illness. Recognizing  in many instances, mental illness in the Black community is brought on by the demographic and societal stressors pressed upon African Americans. It leaves me wondering how much more the families who have a genetic predisposition to mental illness are further impacted by these stressors. 

 (Source: MTSU Center for Health and Human Services)

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month also known as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) Mental Health Month. I share my family’s story  in the hope it will encourage other families not to be ashamed or afraid to seek help. We share openly about generational hypertension, heart disease and other health issues without fear of criticism for our genetic predisposition. 

When we share our stories about mental illness, we help build compassion and understanding for those who “suffer for their sanity.”

(Source: Facebook.com National Federation of Families)

Too often when a family experiences a mental health crisis for the first time they do not know where to turn. For a list of services in California, visit https://www.dhcs.ca.gov/services. Click here for mental health services in Riverside County, or here for services in San Bernardino County. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Live Online Chat. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline is open Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org.

Understanding and awareness of mental illness can go a long way toward helping to heal families and our community. It is the only way to reduce and eliminate the stigmatization and shame that accompanies mental illness. 

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real. 

S. E. Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments or concerns at myopinion@thevoice.com