Of all the questions within this challenge I have to be honest and admit that this one question/subject is the one where I feel that I have to be the most cautious in answering.
In my writings, whether it be in this or my other blogs, or indeed my books, I made a very conscious and deliberate decision to try my best to avoid directly or indirectly causing any hurt or discomfort to any of my family.
Whilst I fully believe, and will fully defend my position, that my mental health or mental illnesses are just that – my mental health or my mental illnesses and thus mine to discuss as I see fit. I do not want, in the process, to cause any offense or discomfort to any members of my family.
And since the question “Do you have a family history of mental illness or mental health issues?” is by very virtue of the question asking me to disclose information about the mental health or mental illness of others and not myself I do want to be extremely careful here.
So what then can I share, in respect of this question?
Well perhaps the following will be acceptable as an answer and indeed possibly help folk understand my reticence.here.
I was born into a military family in southern England in the early 1960’s. And if you think that mental health and mental illness still has a lot of stigma attached to it now, and that we still have a long way to go before we fully understand them, well trust me things were incredibly worse back then.
England was coming out of, but had still not fully come out of, a long and dark passage of very poor, often aggressive, intrusive and violent and totally inappropriate treatment of mental illness.
We simply didn’t understand mental illness and some of the treatments offered were, by today’s understanding and standards, simply barbaric.
The following film is one made by the BBC about Mental Illness in England just before, around and after the time when I was born. Understanding the actual dates of the treatments, circumstances and environments discussed in this film can be difficult. But as you watch this film (and I warn you it can get very uncomfortable to watch at times) check out the dates given under people’s names.
So, as you can see from the above film, whilst progress was being made concerning the understanding of and treatment of mental illness in England when I was born, there was still a huge amount of misunderstanding, mistrust, stigma and indeed poor treatment. The Mental Health Act of 1959 was a huge milestone in improving these things but it took years to fully implement and even longer for the public to truly begin to change their own understanding.
As a result of this Mental health issues were often, where possible, hushed up and either kept secret within families or even kept secret from everyone including the family. Something which is not surprising when you considered the environment and cultural attitudes of the time. Such as things like…
Folk with mental health issues being publicly ridiculed and mistrusted.
Folk with mental health issues still being locked away within asylums (as they continued to be for a good few years later),
Parents of children with mental health issues being considered to be responsible and often thought to themselves have some form of character or physiological defect which was responsible for said mental health issues in their child.
Consequently, having a child, like me, who suffered from poor mental health directly affected your standing within your local community. So subsequently children with mental health issues or poor mental health often seemed to be ‘whisked away’ either to relatives or to ‘homes’ or ‘special hospitals’ or other such institutions.
So much so that sometimes, when a child realized in his or herself that something was different about them, they very often did all they could to hide it or very soon learned to hide it. Even and especially from their family.
Something which, whilst on face value might seem difficult today to understand happening, or even being possible, it really was not so difficult back then. And trust me I speak from personal experience here.
Actually it really wasn’t that difficult as the understanding of mental health and mental illness was a long way off what it is today. And so a great many children were simply labeled as being a ‘problem child’ or ‘troubled’ or even (and I promise you that this is a term which I heard applied to several other children during my childhood and youth) ‘educationally sub-normal’.
And all too often, any behaviors which were actually resultant from poor mental health or from mental illness were therefore simply labelled as ‘unacceptable behavior’, ‘naughtiness’ or ‘rebellion’. And subsequently they were very often sadly dealt with according to those labels or understandings.
In truth, folk of my parent’s generation simply did not tend to admit to, and very often simply did not discuss, any mental illness within a family – even where it was evidently present. And the general ‘catch-all’ term and statement, “Oh he (or she) is ‘unwell’ and so the doctors felt that a spell away whilst they sorted out what was wrong and how to best treat it was needed.” was often used when any such inquiries made.
One such personal example of the kind of attitudes present at the time – which I am willing to share and which I do not feel will cause any offense or discomfort to other members of my family – is that my own father, at the time of my birth (due to pressures of his naval career and the fact that he was abroad and not able to get home for my birth) suffered from a temporary breakdown and was admitted to hospital and placed in a padded cell as a result of it.
But even then, as far as I am aware, absolutely no reference to this was ever made until but a few years ago (and remember I am 52 now) when I was discussing my mental health with my mother and asked about any possible history of mental health or mental illness in the family.
So, in conclusion and in answer to the question “Do you have a family history of mental illness or mental health issues?” My answer would have to be that very often, in my experience, the presence or history of mental health or mental illness within a family is very much hidden and not discussed.
And so yes, I am absolutely certain that, there is a history of some mental illness or mental health within my family but it was and still is extremely well hidden or ‘hushed up’ and I have little to no doubt that I and my family are not alone in this.
And here again we see a classic demonstration of the difference between how physical and mental illness is perceived.
Ask someone if there is a history of heart disease in their family and they will often openly and willingly share any that they know of. But ask if there is any history of mental illness in the family and very often you will see just how reluctant they are to share or insistent they are that there is indeed no such history.