Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Family history of mental health problems

Mental health problems are common in the general population. A history of mental illness in the family, especially depression, can contribute to self-harm in young people, and this featured strongly in the accounts parents gave us. Wendy saw what she thought of as depression in her adopted daughter's birth mother and said 'I think it's hereditary.' Alexis suggested that, although there may have been links between her family history of depression and her daughter's self-harming, she preferred to focus on the present rather than speculate about the past.

Mental health problems in past family members had not always been diagnosed or discussed. Some of the people we talked to mentioned family suicides but often they did not know specific details and in some families the subject was difficult to talk about. A family history of suicide and self-harm is known to be associated with self-harming behaviour*. 

Some parents talked about similarities in character and personality between their children who were self-harming and close relatives who had had mental health problems. Dot said that her daughter's grandmother (on her father's side) had a history of mental health problems and that her daughter 'certainly takes after her in nature and in looks.' Nicky thought her ex-husband had undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and she could see similar traits in her daughter.

When Vicki read on the internet that a history of mental illness in the family can be a contributory factor towards self-harm she made the connection between her mother's alcoholism, her sister's depression, her older son's anxiety and her daughter's self-harm (though she also noted a more direct and more recent influence from an abusive online relationship – see ‘What parents and carers think are the reasons for self-harm’). On the other hand, Vicki felt that because there had been so much mental illness in their family they were 'quite used to dealing with it.'

* Family history of suicidal behaviour: prevalence and significance in deliberate self-harm patients.
Hawton K, Haw C, Houston K, Townsend E.
Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2002 Nov;106(5):387-93.

​Last reviewed December 2017.
Last updated December 2017.

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