When Mental Illness Is Your Family Heirloom

Photo: iStock/Jim Cooke (GMG Art )

You know that scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny’s girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito, played by Marissa Tomei, testifies in court as an “expert witness” on cars? When opposing counsel condescendingly asks how a sweet little lady like herself—a hairdresser, even—could be an authority on automobiles, she replies, “My father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother’s father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics …” and so on.

Well, I liken that type of education to my expertise in mental health. My grandmother was a depressive. My mother is bipolar. Her twin has dealt with depression. My first, second and third cousins have been diagnosed with everything from Bipolar II to anxiety disorders. I myself, have had bouts of depression. My children struggle with anxiety.

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I think you get the picture.

Psychiatric disorders definitely have a genetic component. And that, in addition to the trauma that most black people, particularly black women, endure in their lifetimes means that what may lie dormant is invariably loosed. Sometimes it looks like your auntie, who has barely left her room in 15 years. Sometimes it looks like your daddy, whose rage is so palpable that you can actually feel it; sometimes it’s drinking every night to take the edge off.

But because of the stigma attached, the manifestations of mental illness or even the diagnoses, are not as easy to talk about, as say, diabetes, cancer, or even fibroids running in your family. There’s something allegedly shameful about it, whether those so-called “crazy-makers” are diagnosed or not.

I wanted to talk about mental health in families because it is not only a club that many don’t want into, but it can be a vicious cycle where those who are mentally fragile are taking care of those who are themselves in the throes of mental health crises, a doubly precarious situation.

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Mental illness doesn’t only affect the individual; it has a profound effect on families, and even communities, sometimes reversing roles (i.e., the child becomes the caretaker of the parent way too soon), in addition to a trailer load of stress and worry when someone you love is slipping away to the land of their not-best, not-healthiest, not-most-rational mind. You feel helpless to help them, plus you’re afraid you’ll never see the person you once knew again. (Then there’s the very real aspect of navigating an overburdened, not equitable, sorely lacking mental health system for help—talk about a stressor.)

The good news is that once you know that you have a little “mental” streak running through your veins, you become more cognizant of the signs of mental illness and try to get in front of it, which is what happened for me, and which is why I first entered therapy in my 20s and have continued with it off and on for the last 25 years, including medication.

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It’s why when my oldest child started sharing with me not only their trauma but how it was manifesting in their life that we helped get them their own therapist and even recommended medication. I know through my family (confirmed by science) that the early 20s are when most psychiatric disorders manifest themselves, but these days, children and teens are being diagnosed younger and younger.

It’s why I see mental illness as an heirloom rather than a curse.


In my family, it all began with Alice Ruth, or “Alice the Great.” My grandmother, she of bow legs, rich brown skin, and the established matriarch of our family of wimmins had significant mental health issues, probably helped along by a healthy dose of PTSD. My grandfather left her pregnant with twins at 19-years-old in the early 1950s, his family shipping him off to college in Florida to study science, pledge a fraternity, and become a professional while my grandmother was left to carry her very public shame.

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Then, her mother died, and eventually, she was hospitalized in an institution during the 1960s and 70s. My grandmother stayed there for years, undergoing electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) and God knows what else. My mother and aunt went to live with relatives and eventually a group home until they aged out (thank God they always had each other).

As a consequence, my mother had a rough ass childhood, filled with beans for dinner and abusive caretakers, yearning for a home, and having to visit her mother in an asylum. My mother, already an empath—especially when it comes to black people—then experienced a significant trauma in her early 20s. She held on for many years and then she crashed.

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My mother and I pretty much lived together for my entire life; just the two of us. In that type of relationship, you are very attuned to each other’s emotional frequencies. So, you know when your mother is sad. And when she cries. And eventually, when she can’t function. I was 15 when my mother was first hospitalized, and honestly, I was happy that she was getting help. This thing had a name: “major depression,” and then “bipolar disorder.”

I too have had my share of heartbreak, trauma, and bitter disappointments. But when that blanket of darkness descended on my life in my late teens and early 20s, I knew I had to seek help; I had seen what this debilitating thing does if you don’t act. And so began my crusade, even then speaking out about the fact that colleges don’t have enough mental health supports for students, something they are still grappling with 25 years later.

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I wonder—which came first, the trauma or the illness? Was it sexual assault or incarceration or eviction or any number of agonies faced by the women in my family? And how much do they interplay and affect one another? Then I think—what does it matter?


I wish I could say this story of mental illness in my family had a Hollywood ending. I wish I could say that once we knew what it was, that all was well, we took a pill, said a prayer, did a breathing exercise, then lived happily ever after. But mental illnesses are rarely linear. And like a (brain) virus, they can flare up at any time life throws you a curve ball … a dormant dragon that just won’t give up.

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So you learn to live with the creature; to make peace with it. You learn to respect it and to make room for it so that it will not consume you. You understand that sometimes it changes, and sometimes you do, and that what once worked in the past may need to be tweaked or scrapped. You co-exist with it and you both morph and grow.

What I can say is that knowing is truly half the battle because it gives a word or context for what is happening to you and those you love; it allows you some semblance of control over this thing.

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In my life as a writer, I am now a “mental health advocate” trying to share my knowledge—especially with black people, because we see and experience a lot of traumatic shit. Part of my life’s purpose is to get well on an individual level and to help us get free on a community level, as well. I casually note to folk that I take meds for my depression, perhaps to help someone who is suffering in shame and silence to take that step.

On bad days, we say that Alice Ruth gave us a curse, but on most days I am fiercely proud of my grandmother, who got help by any means necessary, and who gifted us this family heirloom that is really just a part of our shared humanity.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.