If someone in your family is dealing with or has struggled with mental illness, you are probably wondering if you could develop the same condition. And if you yourself have a mental disorder, you may also be concerned about passing a similar or a related illness to a sibling or your child.
Are these fears warranted? Is mental illness hereditary? What factors can influence your likelihood of developing a mental disorder?
Continue reading as we explore how likely it is that you’ll develop a similar mental illness that runs in your family.
What is a mental illness?
Also referred to as mental health disorders, mental illnesses are health conditions that affect how you feel, think, and behave. They can negatively impact your ability to function and cause problems in your day-to-day life, including school, work, and relationships.
Examples of mental illness include anxiety disorders, depression, addictive disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.
Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. Here are some mental health statistics:
- 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness every year.
- 75% of lifetime mental illness begins by age 24, and 50% begins by age 14.
- About 1 in 25 US adults experience a serious mental health issue each year.
- 1 in 6 young people ages between 6 and 17 experience a mental illness each year.
Mental illnesses are different from mental health problems. The latter are more common and can range from the worries and stresses in your life to long-term health conditions.
It is also important to take note that a mental health problem can turn into a mental illness when its symptoms become constant or are not properly dealt with. Therapy is a great help in managing the ongoing symptoms and coping with mental health problems.
Causes of mental illness
Mental health disorders typically start to develop in adolescence or young adulthood. The symptoms and severity vary and can include changes in mood, behaviors, and thinking.
There is no single cause for mental illness. A variety of genetic and environmental factors are thought to cause such disorders or increase your risk of developing one.
- A family history of mental illness
- Trauma or abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional) during childhood
- Environmental exposures before birth (toxins, drugs, alcohol, inflammatory conditions)
- Chemical imbalances in the brain or other biological factors
- Having a chronic health condition (like diabetes or cancer)
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
Does mental illness run in families?
As previously mentioned, a family history of mental illness is one of the risk factors for the said disorder. There is also evidence suggesting that those who have blood relatives with mental illness are more likely to develop it themselves.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that while certain mental disorders can be inherited, genes are not the only reason they may be passed on.
Having a history of mental illness in the family does not guarantee that you’ll develop the same condition yourself. And even though certain mental illnesses may be hereditary, there are likely to be significant differences in the symptoms or their severity among family members.
It is also possible that noticeable symptoms only show up when you’re under overwhelming stress.
Genetic factors and mental illnesses
A study published in The Lancet suggested that some genetic factors can make an individual more likely to develop certain mental illnesses. It is found out that there are some genetic risk factors among the five major mental disorders (autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia).
Variations in two calcium channel genes are said to be related to all five disorders. Genetic variations in CACNA1C had previously been linked to bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. Variations in CACNB2, on the other hand, were associated with all five disorders. These genetic links, however, can only account for a small amount of risk for mental disorders.
Stanford Medicine also estimates that about 10% of Americans will experience major depression at some point in their lives. Some studies also suggest that having a first-degree relative (like a parent or sibling) with depression appeared to be three times more likely to develop the said mental disorder than the general public.
But then again, it isn’t right to view mental illnesses as exclusively genetic conditions. Besides, there are no genetic tests that can confirm a diagnosis of a mental illness. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there is no current genetic test that can accurately predict your risk. Both environmental factors and experiences play an important role in the development of a mental illness.
Preparing for the possibility
A history of mental illness in the family is not a guarantee that you’ll develop the same disorder. But it doesn’t hurt to make the extra effort in protecting your mental health or preparing for the possibility.
Here are a few ways that can help:
Encourage older loved ones to open up
Whether or not an older/close relative has been diagnosed with a mental illness, get them to open up about their feelings or mental health.
You can also ask them about the mental health concerns that they or other family members have been dealing with or have experienced in the past.
Have as much information as possible about the mental illness that runs in your family. It is important to know your risk and gather important details, like the type of mental disorder in your family and how severe it has been, including its signs and symptoms.
Educate yourself and other family members
Once you’ve had that awareness, educate yourself and other loved ones about the mental illnesses in your family, as well as their signs and severity. This will help you know what things to watch out for and take action in case you or a family member starts showing symptoms.
Talk to a doctor or mental health professional
It is also important to share any information you’ve gathered with your physician and/or a mental health professional. This is helpful in looking out for other symptoms that you might have missed or not realized could be a sign of mental disorder. These may include changes in sleeping patterns and appetite or the inability to enjoy the things you used to.
Consider (preventative) therapy
If there is a strong history of mental illnesses in the family and you’re particularly worried, don’t hesitate to undergo therapy. Seeing a mental health professional can help you develop coping strategies for stress and overwhelming situations. It can also help change your unhelpful thinking styles and behavior patterns.
Figure out your next steps
It is beneficial to create a plan or think about what you’ll do if you notice symptoms in yourself, a sibling, or your kids. Figure out which mental health professionals you should talk to, the common treatments, and other healthy coping strategies.
Look after your mental health
Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with a mental disorder, it is still important to support your mental health. The same is also true even if there is no history of mental illnesses in the family.
Here are some ways to look after your mental health:
- Share or talk about your feelings.
- Try to stay active or maintain a fitness routine.
- Eat a balanced diet and limit your consumption of fast and processed foods.
- Practice good sleep hygiene or aim to sleep for 7 to 9 hours.
- Keep in touch with friends or loved ones. Call, message, or chat with them.
- Avoid smoking, alcohol, and drugs.
- Do something you enjoy.
- Ask for help if you’re feeling low, tired, or stressed.
- Care or do things for others.
- Consider therapy when dealing with stress that interferes with your life or how you function.
Both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of mental disorders. Don’t hesitate to see a mental health professional in-person or undergo online therapy on suck platforms like Calmerry if you’re concerned about your mental well-being or need help in navigating through life’s challenges.