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The Importance of Family History on Mental Health

When I do an intake session with a new client, one thing we always cover is family history. Family history relates any relatives who have a mental illness, what a client’s relationship with his or her mom, dad, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, the environment one grows up in, and much more. Family history is significant for many reasons.

  1. Learned behaviors. As children, people are exposed to a variety of interactions between family members. For better or worse, this is how individuals learn what ‘normal’ and acceptable behaviors are. If one grows up seeing parents being loving and kind to each other, they grow up and mimic this behavior in their own relationships. If a child grows up in an abusive household where people physically and mentally abuse one another, this is accepted, even though this is not healthy.
  2. Mental health. If a person has relatives who have a mental illness, there is a higher chance that they themselves will have one. Like some physical illness, such as high blood pressure or breast cancer, it is essential to be aware of a family history of mental health, as they can have a predisposition to mental illness. This does not mean one is absolutely going to inherit the disease though. Mental health is affected by genetics, but also by the environment and the situations they find themselves in.
  3. Financial Environment. Children who are raised in a lower-class family a family that is lower class often have less access to physical and mental health treatment. Unfortunately, schools in wealthier areas have more funding for extracurricular activities and resources for better equipment than schools in more impoverished neighborhoods.
  4. Living arrangements. Children who frequently move from area to area change schools, churches, and social groups. They have both different strengths and weaknesses compared to children who live in the same area for long periods of time.
  5. Alcohol and drug use. If a parent abuses alcohol or drugs, an individual is more likely to abuse substances when they are adolescents and adults. If a mother drinks or uses drugs while pregnant, it impacts many areas of a child’s life. Living in a neighborhood where drug use and the violence that comes from it normalizes the behavior.
  6. Violence and abuse in the home. Some children who are raised in a home where screaming, hitting, threats, and fear are present may show signs of hypervigilance. They have a higher likelihood to become abusers or victims themselves because this is how they learn to treat and be treated.
  7. Nutrition and food. When people are raised in a household where they have food insecurity they have a more considerable amount of stress which affects their physical and emotional development. Parents may have to choose between feeding their family and medications or healthcare. They are more likely to have diseases and poor overall health.
  8. Attachments. It has long been studied that babies and children need constant and healthy attachments to thrive. There is a mental health problem called Reactive Attachment Disorder, where an infant or young child is not exposed to a consistent caregiver. As adults, they are less likely to trust others and have difficulty forming close bonds with others.

These are just some of the reasons therapists inquire about family history. Mental and physical health is affected by many things and the situation that one is exposed to have a significant impact on adulthood.

The Importance of Family History on Mental Health

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2018). The Importance of Family History on Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jul 2018
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