Is Mental Illness Hereditary?
Mental health and mental illnesses are getting a lot of attention right now. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue of mental illness (also known as mental disorder) into the spotlight like never before, as more and more people started talking openly about their struggles. Other crises, like homelessness and increased rates of suicide, have drawn attention to the lack of access to healthcare many Americans with mental illness face.
If you’ve seen mental illness in your family, or if you yourself have a diagnosed mental illness, you might be wondering if these conditions are hereditary. What is your risk of mental illness if your mother or father has one? And what is the risk of passing on a mental illness to a child or grandchild?
Although it’s possible to have a mental disorder even if no one else in your family does, research has shown that those with a parent or sibling who has a specific mental illness are more likely to have it as well. Other factors, including environmental influences, age, and overall health also play a role in determining your risk.
Examples of Mental Illnesses
“Mental illness” is a catch-all phrase for a wide range of mental health issues that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorder, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are some of the more commonly diagnosed mental disorders. Included in the category of Serious Mental Illness are the more rare Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, among others.
Mental illnesses are common in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a mental illness. Mental illnesses are also commonly treatable. If you suffer from a mental illness, a doctor might prescribe you medication to manage it. Millions of Americans, for example, live productive, normal lives despite a mental illness thanks to the medications that manage their symptoms. A doctor might also recommend psychotherapy to help someone manage and/or treat their mental disorder.
The Link Between Mental Illness and Genetics
Researchers have discovered that people whose direct blood relatives also have a mental illness are at higher risk of developing one themselves. They caution, however, that just because there is a family history of mental illness, it does not guarantee you will develop the same. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), many mental disorders are caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors.
Understanding your risk and being proactive about your mental health in general starts with knowing your family history. Talk to family members about their mental illnesses, and learn what may or may not “run in the family.” Once you know your family history with mental disorders, you may want to speak with a mental health professional. They can help you better understand your risk factors, both genetic and environmental, and prescribe preventative care.
Other Risk Factors for Mental Illness
NIMH research has shown that many mental disorders are caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors. Some of the conditions that can influence mental illness include:
- Adverse childhood experiences (trauma, abuse, witnessing violence, etc.)
- Biological factors or chemical imbalances in the brain
- Alcohol or drug use
- Few friends or few healthy relationships
- Stressful life situations like the death of a loved one
- Brain damage as the result of a serious injury (traumatic brain injury)
Genetic Testing for Mental Disorders
According to current science (source: NIMH), today’s genetic tests cannot accurately predict your risk of developing a mental disorder. But genetic tests can help you learn about genetic predispositions so you understand more about your mental well-being.
Research is underway in this field, but scientists haven’t yet discovered all the gene variations that contribute to mental illness. Those that are known only raise the risk by very small amounts.
If you’re concerned about any of your risk factors for mental illness, including family history, it’s important to consult with a mental health professional or your family doctor. They can help you better understand your risk factors and will discuss possible preventative care or lines of treatment.
If you’ve already taken an at-home DNA test and found results that suggest any inherited risk for a medical condition, including cancer, Alzheimer’s or others, bring those results to your doctor to discuss additional testing options and any needed next steps.
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