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Family Stories Shape Attitudes Toward Mental Illness

Family stories about mental illness transmitted from one generation to another can both reinforce stereotypes and yet still teach children important lessons and expectations about the management of such illnesses, according to a new pilot study. This area of study may help explain the role family communication plays in young adult’s understanding of and ability to cope with mental illness.

Storytelling can help families make sense of things that happen to them, but few studies have been done on how families talk about mental illness. Elizabeth Flood-Grady, a postdoctoral associate in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications STEM Translational Communication Center, and Jody Koenig Kellas of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln turned to the theory of Communicated Narrative Sense Making, which suggests that family stories have a substantial impact on members’ beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors, to see if this theory held true for family stories about mental illness.

They conducted interviews with 24 young adults, asking them to recall hearing stories about mental health and illness and what impact those stories had on their lives. They reported their findings in the journal Health Communication.

They found that most stories young adults recalled concerned family members with mental illness and were told by parents or parental figures, such as a grandparent who acted as a parent. They also found that stories of mental illness fell into two distinct categories, caution and struggle.

Caution stories contained warnings for the young family members about the abnormal, destructive and harmful behavior that can accompany mental illness, sometimes perpetuating the negative stereotypes and stigma that surround the disease. Family members’ caution stories generally featured another family member and told the stories in a way that suggested the person’s behavior was a consequence of the mental illness. Some of the caution stories seemed to perpetuate stereotypes, suggesting that people with mental illnesses are not competent, resist taking medication and behave inappropriately.

Struggle stories, in contrast, focused on the difficulties and outside circumstances that contributed to the mental illness, seeming to normalize the occurrence of mental illness and minimizing the stigma. These stories featured first-person accounts of mental illness, where parents talked about the external issues that accompanied the onset of their own mental illnesses. These family members often talked frankly about their experiences, which helped make mental illness seem like a normal part of life.

Whether the stories featured caution or struggle themes, most participants learned stories about mental illness from their parents, and primarily from their mothers. By telling their children stories about mental illness, the parents shared material that can help the next generation learn about and potentially manage mental illnesses that may be passed down through family lines. “Despite their negative tone, both caution and struggle stories served an important socializing function and participants reported learning valuable lessons,” the researchers wrote.

The young adults interviewed reported that after these conversations, they were more aware of mental illness and learned the importance of understanding it. They recognized the role of genes and heredity in mental illness and became aware of how to recognize signs of mental illness in themselves and in others. Hearing stories about mental illness in the family also made young adults reflect on their own mental health as well as how to respond to the mental health needs of others.

The researchers acknowledged that their sample size was low, and that it was limited to young adults who had communicated with at least one family member about mental illness. Of the 24 young adults interviewed, three did not recall being told family stories about mental illness, and the interviews ended there. The researchers suggest that future research should include a larger, more diverse sample and include participants who have and have not discussed mental illness with their families to understand differences between the two groups.

“By investigating family stories about mental illness, we took an important first step in explicating how family communication shapes adult children’s understanding and expectations surrounding these treatable, yet grossly overlooked illnesses,” the researchers wrote in the paper. Findings from future research in this area could help mental health professionals and families develop narratives that increase comprehension of and improve coping skills for dealing with mental illnesses.

Posted: June 26, 2018
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