One in four
Recently I was having a conversation about mental health with someone in my family. I mentioned the fact that one in four people will be affected by mental health problems during their lifetime. A pause followed, in which they digested this statistic, and then they said, “In our family, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s like almost one hundred percent.”
I had to admit that this was true. I’ve struggled with depression, including severe post-natal depression. Other people in my family have had similar struggles, so many, in fact, that I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh no, not again,” or “Oh no, not another one” feeling when I hear about another crisis.
Statistics just show the average. Some families will have exactly one in four people affected by mental health problems. Other families will hardly be affected by mental illness whilst others will seem to be fighting it all the time.
Down to the fourth generation
Some of our susceptibility can probably be explained by environment and life events, but there is evidence that our genes also play a role. Recently I came across an article describing research carried out on the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. It showed that trauma experienced by one generation can actually alter the genes of their children, making them more susceptible to stress and mental health disorders.
I’ve always tried to own my own problems. When I was fighting post-natal depression, I hoped that what I was going through would mean that my children would have less mental health issues to face, not more.
Perhaps it doesn’t work like that. I think of the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children right down to the fourth generation. It seems like a raw deal if God punishes people for mistakes that their great grandparents have made.
Over time I have realised that this verse doesn’t mean that God vindictively causes children and grandchildren to suffer. It simply states a fact: if your life is in a mess then it’s going to have repercussions for the next generation.
Of course, that mess might not be caused by you. Maybe you might have suffered due to war or famine or a natural disaster. If a trauma experienced by the parents affects the genes of the children, does this explain the high levels of depression and alcohol abuse in the Highlands more than one hundred and fifty years after the Clearances?
For how long are the effects of current wars going to be seen in future generations? It is sad to think that those who are lucky enough to survive bombing and displacement and have enough hope left to start a family, might be passing on some of that trauma to their children, no matter how much they try not to.
St Therese and mental illness
I have a fondness for St Therese, perhaps her attitude was, ‘God, I can’t do it on my own. Over to you.’
Her autobiography, ‘Story of a soul’, describes a childhood illness which occurred after her big sister, Pauline, who’d been a sort of substitute mother to her, entered the closed Carmelite convent. Having lost her mother and then her big sister, Therese became ill with what sounds like a severe depression, although there was no such thing as a mental health diagnosis in the 19th century. It also had physical effects and her family feared that she was going to die. Therese herself couldn’t see any way out of the illness, but she prayed and was cured when she turned her head and saw a statue of ‘Our Lady’ smiling at her.
I was searching the web to try to find out more about St Therese and her childhood illness when I came across this beautiful leaflet on St Therese and mental illness. Not only did St. Therese suffer from depression in childhood, but she also bore the pain of seeing her father Louis Martin suffer from mental illness. He spent the last part of his life in a mental asylum. He still became a saint. This gives me hope that mental illness, like physical illness, is something which God allows to come into our lives.
Just as being overweight increases a risk of a heart attack, our choices may increase or decrease our risk of depression. However, there are also other factors outside our control, such as a stressful work environment or a susceptibility to depression which is written into our genes.
The leaflet on St Therese really moved me. It acknowledged the stigma around mental illness and how much of it is suffered in silence. When there is a mental health crisis, people don’t rally round and cook meals for the family the way they might if someone was suffering from a serious physical illness.
For sufferers and carers, mental illness can be lonely. All we can do is follow St Therese’s example, stretch out our arms and say God, ‘I am too little to do this alone. Please pick me up and help me.’