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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Family history of mental health problems

Mental health problems are common in the general population. A history of mental illness in the family, especially depression, can contribute to self-harm in young people, and this featured strongly in the accounts parents gave us. Wendy saw what she thought of as depression in her adopted daughter's birth mother and said 'I think it's hereditary.' Alexis suggested that, although there may have been links between her family history of depression and her daughter's self-harming, she preferred to focus on the present rather than speculate about the past.
 

Tracy, her mother and grandmother have all suffered from depression.

Tracy, her mother and grandmother have all suffered from depression.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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Could you say a bit more about what you called the predisposition to depressive illness in your family and where that comes from?

I think it’s just a clinical, it’s a, it is a clinical thing that was with my grandmother, was with my mother and is obviously, with me, possibly has been passed on. 

And how did you know about it in your grandmother and your mother? How did that, what was your experience of that?

Well, I saw it. I witnessed it, you know, and I saw, I’ve seen my mother in very, a very, very depressed state actually. She was unhappy sometimes during my childhood but that was, again, to make the distinction that wasn’t necessarily depression. Later on, in her adult life, she found, she just became I think overwhelmed sometimes by her own emotions and by things that were happening in life. And again, perhaps because of her make-up had a predisposition where in other people it may not cause depression but in my grandmother and my mother and certainly me would cause depression because it becomes, yeah, overwhelming. 
 

Philip talked about a 'genetic predisposition' to depressive illness in his son.

Philip talked about a 'genetic predisposition' to depressive illness in his son.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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You mentioned that you had some sort of depressive tendencies. Is there anyone else in the family who’s had mental health.

I think

Issues?

I think, unfortunately, it looks as though this may be a genetic predisposition, which my son has inherited the worst of. My wife, I think, is mildly depressive but not very much so. Her mother was diagnosed with depression in her old age. My father has clearly suffered. My brother is receiving very similar medication to me.

My sister was very depressed for oh, five, maybe ten years but it but she found someone to marry, who she’s still with. They’re happily retired in South West France, lucky things, and that seems to that seems to have given her a balance and she can she can deal with things. But her, both her sons have talked of depression. My brother’s eldest I think isn’t a sufferer but his two girls are. 
 

Fiona is not sure whether genetics played a part in her son’s problems.

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Fiona is not sure whether genetics played a part in her son’s problems.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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Yes and in the family, has there been anyone else anyone who’s had serious mental health problems? You said he’d been diagnosed with bipolar.

Yeah, one of his uncles is a severe depressive, chronic depressive. Who’s also tried to commit suicide a couple of times. His father’s side of the family have many strange issues. I mean there’s a, his father is one of five boys and all five have had fairly major problems in their lives but again, it’s not something I can talk to anyone about because the immediate response I get is, “Well, that’s because you don’t like his father.” It’s nothing to do with that. This is the fact.

On my side of the family, I’m not aware of any sort of mental health issues, other than my own. I mean I know I have a, [tut] brain switched off now, addictive personality, which is obviously drug and alcohol people, it’s addictive personality so and with the depression, chicken and an egg. Was I, am I a depressive person or are my life circumstances made me a depressive person? So my youngest son obviously, has my genes and his family genes and I don’t know what’s previous in my family. My nephew, my son’s son, my brother’s son became an alcoholic and became very obese. I and he’s had a stomach bypass so, obviously, there’s something there as well but there’s genes obviously, on my side but my previous family, you know, my grandparents and things, I don’t know.

So is there some genetic disposition? I don’t know. All I know is I have to get through each day and live with what’s here and try not to think because it’s, I think it would be quite easy to blame it on, “Well, it’s because of this, it’s because of that.” And I’ve got enough of that with my own guilt, you know. I should have done this, shouldn’t have done that.

Yes.

Without trying to think, you know, was great granny at fault.


Mental health problems in past family members had not always been diagnosed or discussed. Some of the people we talked to mentioned family suicides but often they did not know specific details and in some families the subject was difficult to talk about. A family history of suicide and self-harm is known to be associated with self-harming behaviour*. 
 

People in Joanna's family did not talk about mental illness.

People in Joanna's family did not talk about mental illness.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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And has anyone else had any serious mental health problems?

I don’t know because my ex-husband’s mum died before I met him and I was given a polished version of her death but the family gossip says otherwise, that was a suicide and she suffered from depression for a while. So I cannot confirm.

But a possibility, yes…?

There is a possibility.

Yes.

Yes.

Plus I come from family, where those things were completely, didn’t exist. You did not talk about it.  Very kind of different mind set. You just get on with it.

Yes. Yes.

So when I suffered from post-natal depression, in this country and my family was in another country, I didn’t have much help because I couldn’t speak to my mum about it.
 

Isobel was aware of depression on both sides of the family and a possible family suicide but it wasn't discussed.

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Isobel was aware of depression on both sides of the family and a possible family suicide but it wasn't discussed.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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And has there been anyone else in the family who’s had any sort of serious mental health problems?

No, not as far as I know. I think if you go further back, I was brought up by my grandparents and I think, my maternal grandparents, and I think my grandmother possibly had depression but I wouldn’t have known what depression what it was and she died when I was fifteen. But she did talk about her own, it was either her mother or her grandmother, having early onset dementia or I think she said in the parlance of that she would have used that she went a bit ga-ga and I can’t remember if that was her mother or her  grandmother. But certainly no one in my or my father’s side or my mother’s side have had any significant mental illness.

It’s depression in our family that would be, if any, the sort of mental illness that anybody has suffered from is depression, long term depression.

And in her father’s family, were there any?

It’s a personal view, I think he’s mentally ill. I think he’s possibly got a personality disorder. 

There’s that expression, you know, normal is as normal does. To my mind, I think my family were normal. I don’t think his family were. They’re incredibly punitive and strict and, whereas I was brought up with lots of chaos and love, he was brought up with lots of rules and not showing much emotion.

And her, my daughter’s granny’s father, so her great grandfather, had some kind of mental illness but I’m not sure what it was and there was possibly a suicide in their family too, but I can’t remember the details because I split up from him quite a while ago.

And again they wouldn’t have talked about it. He wouldn’t have talked about it. He wouldn’t have talked about it.

Yes.

Because he didn’t talk about emotions so. 


Some parents talked about similarities in character and personality between their children who were self-harming and close relatives who had had mental health problems. Dot said that her daughter's grandmother (on her father's side) had a history of mental health problems and that her daughter 'certainly takes after her in nature and in looks.' Nicky thought her ex-husband had undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and she could see similar traits in her daughter.
 

Nicky could see similarities between her ex-husband’s behaviour and her daughter’s.

Nicky could see similarities between her ex-husband’s behaviour and her daughter’s.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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Any serious mental health problems, apart from…?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, unfortunately, we’re all rife with it I think. There’s, well, what is it, one in, one in four is they reckon? Yes, my mother was an alcoholic. She had a nervous breakdown when I was thirteen and suffered with suffered with some elements of coping with life and her alcoholism until she died when I was, she died when I was thirty one.

So I kind of grew up with it, which was not very pleasant. My ex-husband has been diagnosed as various things but both my daughter and her CPN think he’s probably an undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. I would agree with that, having lived with my daughter I think that’s probably it, and having lived with him for a lot of years, I think that’s a fairly accurate description. But a lot of her behaviours are very reminiscent of his. His, I think there was something quite seriously wrong with his mother but I’m not a professional and I wouldn’t like to diagnose it.


When Vicki read on the internet that a history of mental illness in the family can be a contributory factor towards self-harm she made the connection between her mother's alcoholism, her sister's depression, her older son's anxiety and her daughter's self-harm (though she also noted a more direct and more recent influence from an abusive online relationship – see ‘What parents and carers think are the reasons for self-harm’). On the other hand, Vicki felt that because there had been so much mental illness in their family they were 'quite used to dealing with it.'
 

Vicki learnt from dealing with her mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work.

Vicki learnt from dealing with her mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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My mother was an alcoholic. She died three years ago and again, that’s a kind of self self-harm and I learnt from dealing with my mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work. It has to come from within. You can never influence or force someone to change and that is one of the things that’s helping me at the moment in that I have to be a little bit relaxed about this. I have to just give her every opportunity to get help but I can’t force it on her and I do say this to her that, “This is this is up to you. This is your choice.” 

Let me think - anyone else who’s had, yeah, my sister, she’s had depression. My brother’s had anger management.  Her eldest brother, who’s a doctor, he’s had CBT for anxiety. So there there’s lots of cases of it in our in our family so yeah, we’re quite we’re quite used to dealing with it I suppose now. 

So you’re, there’s a practical kind of benefit from...

Yeah, there is.

That in a sense, yeah.

Yeah. Yeah.

And before I asked you the question, did you make those connections yourself in your head about family experiences and what’s happening to your daughter?

Yeah, definitely, especially after reading on the website that a history of mental illness in the family can also be a factor towards self-harming but we’ve never had actually, we’ve never had a self-harmer, apart from like my mum who was alcoholic, no, we’ve never had a self-harmer.

Yeah.

And I suppose possibly my brother with the anger management I know that I’ve also read that that boys sometimes don’t get diagnosed as self-harm because they will punch things and hurt themselves and it’s not really perceived as self-harm but that, I know my brother definitely did that. And he would he actually broke his hand and busted it up once just through sheer, sheer punching the walls and things. So I kind of classify that as a kind of self-harm too.


* Family history of suicidal behaviour: prevalence and significance in deliberate self-harm patients.
Hawton K, Haw C, Houston K, Townsend E.
Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2002 Nov;106(5):387-93.

​Last reviewed December 2017.
Last updated December 2017.
 

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