Did you know that Thanksgiving is National Family Health History Day?
This may well be an opportune moment to create something to be thankful for. Consistent with its familial and historical meaning, the Surgeon General has designated Thanksgiving Day as a day to think about health-promoting practices in the context of one’s whole family—past, present, and future. This health initiative began as a way to help focus attention on the importance of family health history. The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness and encourage dialogue among family members about the specifics of their health background.
As marriage and family therapists, much of our work is informed by thinking of our broader context. We know that assessing family history and relational patterns is necessary for effective treatment and positive outcomes. The more we know about a client’s story, the better we can educate her or him about risk factors for challenges such as depression and anxiety. If a client presents with family precedents of depression, we know that he or she is at a higher risk for developing the condition. By knowing the client’s background, we can educate and validate a client who feels depressed, preventing symptoms from deteriorating.
For a long time, health care professionals have known that common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer have a familial link. In the case of high blood pressure, for example, if one generation has it, the next generation is likely to have a similar condition. As in the case of our family mental health history, knowing the physiological illnesses experienced by our predecessors can help your doctor predict risk factors that may affect you and your family. In turn, the more information given to your healthcare provider, the better he or she can take the appropriate action to ensure better health for you and your family.
Interestingly, while we all tend to realize that family history is important to good health, we are often vague or hesitant about gathering this much-needed data. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that only one-third of Americans have attempted to gather and document their family health history. This is staggeringly low given the known benefit of having your family data readily available. It invites the question: what keeps us from gathering this precious information?
The brief answer may be that it is hard to talk about conditions that may have brought great sorrow to your family. If a family member was lost to cancer, it may be hard to ask questions that could trigger a grief response. Similarly, if there is a family history of alcohol and drug abuse, direct lines of communication will be hard to access. Whatever the reason, when we avoid this kind of self-diagnosis, we are denying ourselves a unique benefit. By being prepared and planning, we can prevent or mitigate difficulties down the road. To help us overcome the psychological barrier to portraying our family history, it might be helpful to remember that it is just as unpleasant to craft our will and yet we know that the benefit of peace of mind is worth some discomfort.
When you bring up the topic this Thursday, you need not do so in an obtrusive or cheerless way. Express congenially your interest in the different generations that make up your family. In fact, it may be in the spirit of the original Thanksgiving Proclamation to set apart and observe some time during your celebratory gathering to get to know your family health history. Supported by this new-found context, you can take healthy living steps, including strategies for better mental health. Sharing the information you have found with your doctor is the next practical step, but you also stand to gain from the enhanced closeness with your family.
Vanessa Bradden, LMFT is a staff member at AAMFT, collaborating with the Communications Department as a product development specialist. She has a private practice in Chicago and is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. Vanessa’s clinical interests and expertise include working with individuals and couples coping with perinatal mood disorders, pregnancy loss as well as grief and other losses.