Twenty-year-old Emily didn’t grow up thinking she might have inherited a mental health condition. Then, a tremor ran through her home life, changing her outlook. “It never crossed my mind, until the time that my mother went into hospital," she says. "I started to think, ‘Fuck, am I going to go into hospital? Will I have a breakdown like that?’”
Emily, who has a formal obsessive compulsive disorder diagnosis, hadn't known her about her mother Ann*'s OCD diagnosis. Emily only learnt about it proper detail in her late teens after Ann had to receive treatment for breast cancer, which triggered a severe relapse of her lifelong OCD. Today, mother and daughter are very close, and maintain an open line of communication on mental illness and the subsequent challenges it poses. Even though Emily’s OCD manifests itself in ways different to Ann’s, they both believe this mutual acceptance helps, much more than it hinders, in the long run.
The connection between genetics and mental health is often mentioned in passing, but its truth is, to put lightly, murky. In 2017, British mental health organisation Rethink issued a factsheet called Does Mental Illness Run in Families?, clarifying parts of that discussion around genetics. And although research points to clearer genetic links when it comes to schizoaffective disorders, major depression, ADHD and bipolar, the main takeaway is this: “Most people with a mental illness do not have relatives with the same illness. But research does suggest that mental illness can run in families.” And although there are patterns, mental illness, both as a lived experience and a science, is deeply human – not numeric.
But where does “Generation Anxiety” fall in this conversation? Millennials are not only more prone to mental illness, but also have significantly more language to discuss their own mental health struggles than previous generations. Dealing with daily symptoms is daunting enough, before you factor in knowing you might pass that diagnosis onto your unborn children. As some of us trundle toward the age when we’re really considering starting families of our own, will our experiences and this increased understanding of mental illness change our generation’s perspective of potential parenthood?
“Mental illness definitely runs in my family,” says Sara, 29, who deals with generalised anxiety disorder and chronic depression. Her symptoms, before she started therapy, made her feel she wasn’t worthy of being a parent. “I used to see that as a detriment, but I realise it's like any other ailment us humans must deal with. My parents never spoke about it growing up, and I can see how that lack of openness impacted me. I didn't get help or recognise what was wrong until my late twenties and I wish it was something I had addressed earlier in my life.”
Several people I speak to pinpoint learning from their parents’ shortcomings as a key factor in how they’d raise their own children. Openness is the most obvious of these. “It’s important to be open about mental health problems with young people when they arise, keeping in mind to always promote wellbeing and self-care, so your child knows what to do and where to go if they begin to struggle,” says Jo Hardy, the head of Parent Services at mental health charity Young Minds. “It may help to have honest conversations about mental health, and for parents to share things with their child that have helped them cope during a difficult time. And if things get tough, there’s no shame in seeking help from professionals.”
Hardy acknowledges how hard it is to watch your child struggle with their mental health. When you’ve also experienced mental ill health, it’s possible that as a parent, you might then feel an added sense of responsibility or worry. As Hardy puts it: “It’s common for parents to blame themselves for mental health problems that their children are facing, and this can be heightened for parents who may be ill themselves, even though it’s not the case."
For Leo*, a 22-year-old who deals with a combination of five formal diagnoses, including complex post-traumatic disorder, stigma plays a pivotal role in how he views himself as a future father. He plans to adopt, and says that his illnesses have been one of the defining factors in this decision. “I know if I did have a child they would likely inherent one of my mental illnesses or physical disabilities, and it feels ridiculous to make a child for my own ego or some warped idea of a ‘legacy’, when there are vulnerable children in the world who need a loving home that I could offer them,” he tells me. “I don't believe genetics make a family – I think our actions and dedication to a relationship with another life do.”
Helen*, 27, has OCD and has also experienced bouts of clinical depression. She similarly believes she’ll adopt if she even gets to the point of wanting children – although even that is debatable: “I can barely support myself when it comes to my mental health. I can’t afford my therapist. Although if I passed on mental health issues to my children, adopted or otherwise, I would know how to help them, how could I make sure they see a therapist and have a good quality of life, without a ‘safety net’.” She points to the existing link between working class millennials without extra funds and poor mental health.
Helen’s comment raises another important question: Some of us simply don’t want kids, mental illness or not. Looking at the wider context of our generation, that positioning is to be expected. After all, the world is on fire, we live in a post-horny era and are less likely to want to settle down in the heteronormative way. As well as that, most of our generation are broke, and a child, as miraculous as it might seem to some, is always a huge expense.
When you factor mental health into the chaotic equation of potential millennial parenthood, the people I hear from are fully aware that their diagnoses and symptoms might pose future challenges. But, when asked, they’ve all reached a similar conclusion on how to deal with it: communication, learning from the previous generation’s shortcomings, and taking it one step at a time. Which, in all honesty, is advice that could be applied to many other complicated matters we face.
Emily’s mother, Ann, is a lived example of openness being effective in the long run. When Emily began showing signs of OCD, she knew how to get her daughter the appropriate medical support and made sure to seek out doctors who understood her and her daughter’s condition. Ann herself was only formally diagnosed at 27, though she'd experienced symptoms for years. “Don’t let [your children] feel that they are failures,” she tells me. “Having a mental illness is something that can make them have a better understanding about themselves. It is not something that they should ever be ashamed of.”
For information on how to speak to your child about mental health, please check the Young Minds website.