Written by Shannon,
5 Minute Read
Medically reviewed by:
Conor O’Neill, PHD
Assoc. Director of Therapy
10 Minute Read
- Doctors and researchers are continually learning new things about mental illness, testing hypotheses, and performing clinical tests.
- It’s also important to note that, to date, there is no single genetic test that can determine your genetic risk factors for mental illness.
- For many individuals, treatment looks like some combination of therapy and medication, optimized by and supervised by highly trained professionals.
Many people with mental illnesses wonder if their mental illness is hereditary. It’s perfectly understandable.
To try to address this rather complex issue, we’ve compiled a list of 5 things you should consider regarding the genetic or hereditary nature of mental illness.
If you have more questions, or if you want to talk to a mental health professional about symptoms of mental illness, start with a free assessment today!
Research is ongoing
Perhaps the first thing to consider is that research into mental illness is ongoing. Doctors and researchers are continually learning new things about mental illness, testing hypotheses, and performing clinical tests. The National Institute of Mental Health says, “Research conducted and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has found that many mental disorders are caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors.”
It’s also important to note that, to date, there is no single genetic test that can determine your genetic risk factors for mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health explains that your family history will tell you more than any genetic testing can, as “no gene variant can predict with certainty that a person will develop a mental disorder.”
Some Mental Illnesses are Hereditary
Scientists have known for a long time that some mental illnesses are hereditary, and are passed down from generation to generation. Other mental health concerns seem to be intergenerational, with siblings sharing common diagnoses, especially if their parents have mental health problems as well. Simply put, some mental illnesses run in families.
In particular, researchers are studying the genetic roots of mental illnesses including
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depressive disorder
Additionally, several developmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism appear to haver a genetic component in nature as well.
As we stated above, however, not every child whose parent has a mental illness will share the diagnosis. As Dr. Allen Frances wrote for Psychology Today, “Having a close relative with a psychiatric disorder is usually the most predictable risk factor for developing that disorder yourself, but the relationship is not inevitable. Even identical twins (who have identical genes) as often as not do not develop the same psychiatric disorder.”
While evidence that mental illness is hereditary is statistically significant, Dr. Jordan Smoller tells us that “each of these genetic associations individually can account for only a small amount of risk for mental illness.”
Some Mental Illnesses are Environmental
If heredity and genetics can’t account for all instances of mental illness, then there must be other factors that contribute. There is ample evidence that environmental factors play a vital role in the development of some mental illness. These factors may include (but are not limited to)
- Loss of a parent
- Family problems
- Natural disasters or health epidemics
Any of these factors can potentially contribute to mental health problems, such as
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
These factors may exacerbate hereditary mental illness proclivities as well.
Some Mental Illnesses are Caused by a Mix of Things
As we stated above, most of the time mental illness is caused by a variety of factors working together. These might include biological factors such as a hormonal imbalance, environmental factors such as a traumatic brain injury or exposure to toxins. Or they might include a combination of all of these factors with genetics in the mix.
On our blog, for example, we’ve discussed a study involving fMRI brain scans of people who recently experienced a traumatic event. The study “ found differences in brain activity related to mental health symptoms. Participants with brain activity categorized as reactive/disinhibited (high activity related to both a threat and reward) had more symptoms of both PTSD and anxiety over the six-month follow-up period compared to people with different brain activity.”
In this study alone, you can get a sense for how complex the factors that cause mental illness can be. There simply is no single cause. Some piece of mental illness is hereditary in some cases, but as Dr. Allen Frances concludes “Right now, genetic studies give us an early insight into interacting dimensions of illness that are influenced not just by genes, but by interactions of genes with regulatory components, experience, and the actual illness and its treatment.”
Even Hereditary Mental Illnesses Can Be Treated
That last point Dr. Frances made above is quite significant. Treatment for mental illness can change the course of the disease, even if the cause IS hereditary. No matter if you have family members with the same genetic variation that causes a mental health disorder, treatment can make a huge difference in the trajectory of your own disease.
For some, therapy is the perfect option. The help to understand what you are feeling, and what contributes to it, and to find strategies to work through those feelings and experiences can be a substantial mechanism to effective treatment.
For others, mental health treatment may require medication under supervision from a psychiatric provider.
For many individuals, treatment looks like some combination of therapy and medication, optimized by and supervised by highly trained professionals. That’s where Brightside Health comes in.
To learn more or to get help with symptoms you may experience, start with a free assessment today.