by Curtis Lanning
If someone breaks an arm or gets a nasty cut on his or her leg, it’s off to the doctor so the problem can be fixed. But when it comes to mental health, people are unfortunately more likely to respond slower, if at all. While some mental health problems affect individuals, others can impact multiple generations in a family.
Rebecca Ward is a counselor in Central Arkansas and has practiced in the state for nearly 40 years. She calls the current state of mental health care in Arkansas “pitiful.”
“I don’t think that mental health gets the kind of funding, attention or recognition it ought to get,” she says.
But Ward says the quality of care has gotten better since she started practicing in 1980. Most noticeably, acceptance of mental health care has increased among Arkansans. More people believe it’s okay to see a therapist or psychiatrist without being labeled “nuts” or “crazy,” according to Ward.
“People understand you can have depression or anxiety without it being a permanent state or weakness in personality or character,” she says.
Beyond an individual having depression or anxiety, mental health professionals have learned that children from parents with mental health issues are more likely to develop mental health issues of their own, according to Ward.
For example, if someone comes from a family with a history of depression, he or she is going to have a likelihood of experiencing that as well. “Generally, there’s gonna be some instance in that family,” Ward says.
Someone with a close relation who has a drug or alcohol addiction has a 50 percent chance of developing that same problem than someone without a family history, according to the counselor. Generalized anxiety disorder is another example of a multigenerational mental health issue. Ward says there are strong genetic components in mental illness.
Alex R. Dopp, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas, agrees. He says mental health problems tend to “run in families.” And children can sometimes see the same issues as their caregivers.
“There are many reasons for this association, including inherited genetic risk factors, the child modeling the caregiver’s behavior (e.g., problematic coping strategies for stress), and mental health problems making it more difficult for caregivers to support the child’s development,” he says.
Yet, a family history of mental health problems does not guarantee that a person will develop such problems, and most caregivers with mental health problems are fully capable of providing a healthy, safe, and loving environment for a child, Dopp adds.
And when it comes to a child’s mental health, family structure is important. “I think it’s crucial,” Ward says.
The counselor likened it to baking a cake. All the ingredients in the mix are important for a healthy child. “Environment is crucial to how a person develops. Babies start absorbing their environment at the moment of birth,” Ward says.
Dopp agrees, saying the most critical factor for a child’s mental health and development when it comes to family influence is having a well-functioning family unit.
“I consider ‘well-functioning’ as the ability of the adults in the child’s life to work together in a child-focused way to promote that child’s well-being,” the professor says.
Ward says there are some clues parents should look for in their child that’ll help determine if mental issues are present. “If a child has lots of anxiety, can’t sleep at night, is scared of the dark or going out in the car, a parent has to ask, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Suicide is another mental health issue of which people can never be too aware. And, like depression and anxiety, multigenerational mental health comes into play with it as well.
Often, when someone commits suicide, he or she has it in their background, according to Ward. A family member who has taken his or her life makes the action that would seem impossible to most, doable for some. “It becomes not so impossible,” Ward says.
As for symptoms to be on the alert for, Ward says if someone talks about suicide, that person is thinking about it. If someone feels like a friend or loved one may be at risk, professional help should be encouraged.
“Talk to the person, and tell them they should seek help. Depression is most of the time curable. Always treatable,” Ward says.
When it comes to one’s own mental health, Ward advises people to seek help if depressive symptoms last for more than 10-14 days, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and guilt.
“No energy; don’t wanna do anything; attention problems; sleep issues; loss of appetite or overeating; suicidal ideas; if any of that happens, it’s time to see a doctor,” Ward says.
If someone feels like he or she might be a danger to themselves or anyone else, Ward encourages a stay in a psychiatric unit until the person is stabilized.
In the end, she says she just wants mental health care access to be more widespread in Arkansas.