RootsTech 2023: What does family history have to do with mental health?

How telling one’s own story can be healing and be an opportunity to connect, teaches Devin Ashby, global outreach manager at FamilySearch during RootsTech 2023

Telling one’s own story can be both healing and a way to connect to loved ones, said RootsTech 2023 presenter Devin Ashby, underscoring the family history opportunity of healing through sharing.

A global outreach manager for FamilySearch and frequent RootsTech presenter, Ashby led the “Family History and Mental Health” class to a large audience Saturday, March 4, the event’s Family Discovery Day.

Do you know?

Ashby began a series of questions from Robyn Fivush’s 20 “Do You Know?” questions about family history. The following are a few of the questions.

  • Do you know how your parents met?
  • Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc.)?

Ashby explained that Fivush’s studies from The Family Narratives Lab show that children who could answer more of these questions had higher overall well-being, self-esteem, and better academic performance.

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Main stage for RootsTech 2023, at the Salt Palace Convention Center
The entryway to the main stage for RootsTech 2023, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in March 2023. | Lily Moyes, Church News

Healing through sharing

Ashby shared a quote from Martha Driessnack, a professor of nursing and author: “A key element … ‘for both the teller and the listener, is the sharing of positive moments, alongside the ability to bounce back from difficult ones.’”

Interactive display at RootsTech, March 4, 2023.
An interactive display at RootsTech 2023 at the Salt Palace Convention Center on March 4, 2023. | Lily Moyes, Church News

Ashby shared a few of his own personal experiences of being vulnerable and listening to others share their stories, and the value and benefits of doing so.

In addressing mental health in regards to suicide, Ashby said people should not be remembered by the worst thing they have ever done. Rather, they should be remembered by the lives they lived, and the things they accomplished. 

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Influences of social media

Ashby spoke of the influences of social media on mental health, emphasizing that “social media isn’t going away, so we should learn how to work with it” and adding that people should learn how to use it to their best advantage. 

Ashby talked about the difference between sympathy and empathy, and outlined positive ways to interact with and comfort people. He also discussed how people can be vulnerable both when sharing their own struggles and when responding to others’ struggles. 

Entryway for RootsTech, March 4, 2023.
A display features chess pieces at at RootsTech 2023 at the Salt Palace Convention Center on March 4, 2023. | Lily Moyes, Church News

How to use this? 

Ashby quoted New York Times columnist and bestselling author Bruce Feiler, who spoke at RootsTech 2016: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

Ashby then shared his own family’s belief: “We believe in people and experiences, and that the world has an endless supply of both.” 

He suggested his listeners to participate in the “21 Day Family Connections Experiment: A Family History Project,” created by a team of family history experts, social media influences, a psychologist and others, to help people strengthen family bonds and boost their emotional and mental well-being during COVID-19. Participating in the project both provides an opportunity to spend time with one’s family and to share stories.

Ashby concluded with a reminder to be real and vulnerable when sharing one’s story with friends and family and to listen with empathy when they tell theirs.

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