Anytime a patient visits the doctor’s office, a medical history is taken or updated. This history includes things like whether or not there is heart disease or cancer in the family, the number of surgeries a patient has had, and if he or she is allergic to any type of medication.
When it comes to mental disorders however, nothing is asked and therefore, generally nothing is said. Science Daily recently published a piece that examined the research findings at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP). In this study, researchers found that 30 minutes or less of question-and-answer about the family history or depression, anxiety or substance abuse is enough to predict a patient’s approximate risk for developing such a disorder.
“There are lots of kids with behavior problems who may outgrow them on their own without medication, versus the minority with mental illnesses that need treatment,” said Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the IGSP, in Science Daily. “Family history is the quickest and cheapest way to sort that out.”
Psychiatric conditions are some of the most heritable of all disorders. What has been less than certain is the link between family history and the seriousness of psychiatric disease. As long as practitioners ignore this important aspect of a patient’s overall health, the number of those suffering will only continue to grow.
According to Moffitt, health professionals have shied away from questioning people about their family history of mental illnesses because of the stigma attached to them. “There’s a sense that families are not as open about mental disorders — that people may not know or may make incorrect assumptions,” she said.
Researchers suggest that this stigma can easily be overcome by the way in which questions are worded. Instead of asking if a relative had a history of anxiety disorder, researchers would ask, “Has anyone on the list of family members ever had a sudden spell or attack in which they felt panicked?”
Most surprisingly, the “bible of psychiatry” or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) makes no mention of gathering family history. As long as this is the case, patients and their practitioners have an uphill battle.