Uncovering a family history of mental illness is not always easy because, historically, mental illnesses have been kept hidden in many cultures. A person might be able to discover close relations who have had a mental illness, but going further back than relatives who are still living is often difficult. Even if you believe there is a reason you must discover a history of mental illness in your family, such as for diagnostic purposes, there are ways to work around this problem. If you are interested for personal reasons, drawing conclusions from family history may be acceptable even if the results are not necessarily accurate.
Many mental illnesses are known to affect members of families across generations. A person who knows that his or her mother had a specific mental illness may, for example, be better prepared to identify the symptoms of that mental illness. Even so, family history is not definitive, and a history of mental illness is not usually used in this way.
For other purposes, such as being interested in the subject or doing research on your family, more speculative approaches can be taken. Close relatives who are still living can usually be interviewed directly, although older family members may not understand the disorder in question if that disorder was not commonly diagnosed when they were young. If you know the symptoms you are looking for, then the descriptions provided by relatives can often be used to diagnose family members who have passed away.
Another good way to uncover a history of mental illness is to look at records left behind by family members, such as letters, diaries, or even references in news articles. Tendencies present in records can sometimes be used to point out mental peculiarities. It may not be easy to discover if your relatives were ever institutionalized because most families do not like to keep evidence of this type of tragedy present. Figuring out if you have a family history of mental illness is often a matter of detective work and may include creative inferences.
Closer relatives who are suffering from mental illness may not be forthcoming about that illness either. Many people do not wish to draw attention to a mental illness, even within a family. It may not be socially acceptable to identify family members who are still living as people who are suffering from a mental illness, so it is a good idea to tread carefully when talking about this subject with living family members. Alienating potential interview subjects will never uncover a family history of mental illness, so it is important to discuss this topic as slowly or obliquely as the subject wishes in order to facilitate future research.