Are Mental Health Disorders Genetic?

Mental Illness Can Be Inherited, But There’s Help and Hope

Mental illness is a major problem within the United States. As many as 19% of American adults are actively experiencing a mental illness, with almost a quarter of them experiencing a mental illness so severe that it limits their ability to work or function in society. This is a massive number, equaling roughly 47 million Americans. The number of Americans affected by mental illness is concerning, and it is vital that those who have loved ones with mental health issues understand the problem and help them get treatment.

One of the most important debates within the study of mental illness is the ultimate causes of the disease: Are mental illnesses genetic, and if so, what can be done to modulate their ultimate impact?

There seems to be no question that most mental illnesses have a genetic component. However, there is ample reason to hope: Even if you or someone you love has a family history of mental illness, there is no guarantee that they will develop a mental illness. Furthermore, with appropriate help — including using our resources at the National Mental Health Hotline — people with mental illnesses can get treatment and lead happy and productive lives.

The Genetic Component of Mental Illness

The evidence here is clear: There is a genetic component to mental illness.

A variety of studies have shown that genetic variations or mutations of certain genes can increase the odds that an individual will suffer from a mental illness. For example, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health pointed to variations of the CACNA1C and CACNB2 genes. These generic variations have been explicitly linked to major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The key changes in the CACNA1C and CACNB2 genes were present in many of the people who developed these disorders.

However, the same study also came to this important conclusion: The variations of these genes accounted for only a “small amount of risk” of suffering from any of these diseases. In other words, a genetic predisposition was not found to be the same as a predetermination or guarantee of developing any of these diseases. Furthermore, having a genetic predisposition does not mean that someone is less likely to respond to treatment, although it may mean that certain treatments are more or less effective.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, a meta-analysis of 33 different studies examined the odds of someone developing certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression, if they had a family member who was diagnosed with the disease. While the specific rate varied depending on the disease, individuals whose parents had a severe mental illness were twice as likely to develop that mental illness than people whose parents did not receive that diagnosis. In other words, the genetic link between mental illness and acquiring a mental illness seems very clear.

However, again, there are certain caveats. First, a genetic predisposition is not the same as a determination, and individuals should keep this in mind. However, it may mean that someone is more likely to suffer from mental illness and respond better to certain treatments than others.

How Does This Genetic Component Work?

Among many other functions, genetics impact us by determining the way that our brains work, how we process thoughts, and how our hormone levels are controlled. This means that genetics can have a major impact on the way we feel, express behavior, and process thoughts, inherently influencing how people behave.

Genetics can set the stage for all our behaviors and ultimately influence our ability to learn alternate methods of coping. However, again, how that plays out depends on the specific genes in question. It can also be difficult to determine the differences between nature and nurture: how someone is raised versus their genes. There is obviously extensive overlap between these two areas. Indeed, genetics may heavily influence the way someone is raised, which may impact their mental illness, if they develop one in the first place. This can make it extremely difficult to determine the specific impact of genetics on mental illness and separate it from the nurture factors of mental illness.

The Impact of Nurture in Mental Illness

In this instance, the portion of this debate that deals with nurture involves someone’s upbringing, life experiences, and surroundings. In the right conditions, such as having a supportive family and access to appropriate treatment resources, a genetic predisposition to mental illness can be ameliorated. In contrast, a difficult family life, a stressful upbringing, or being brought up by someone who has an untreated mental illness themselves can make these factors much worse and ultimately cause a mental illness to emerge.

It is important to remember that virtually no mental illness is caused exclusively by genetic factors. An environmental factor, such as a difficult upbringing, stressful life events, or a traumatic experience, will almost always play some role. This is extremely important on multiple levels, as it means that a genetic predisposition to mental illness does not guarantee that your life will be one that is dominated by such a disorder.

The best way to picture the balance of this disease is to imagine mental illness as a full glass of water. A genetic predisposition may fill the glass much higher than is someone didn’t inherit such a tendency. It may fill the glass a quarter of the way, halfway, or more. However, a life event may fill the rest of the glass and cause a mental illness. It is certainly possible that a genetic predisposition will fill the glass virtually all the way, but it is also possible that someone who has no such predisposition may suffer from a mental illness, given certain sets of circumstances.

As such, when considering the impact of genetics on mental illness, keep this in mind: It isn’t a “black or white” situation. Instead, you’re dealing with various shades of gray.

What Precautions Can Someone With a Genetic Predisposition Take?

The evidence is clear: A genetic predisposition does make someone more likely to develop mental illnesses and often to develop them at a young age. This means that individuals should be aware of the potential for these symptoms and self-monitor for any expression of mental illness. The symptoms of mental illness can vary from person to person, can be modulated by a variety of cultural impacts, and can be different based on the specific illness. However, individuals who have a genetic predisposition should be very conscious of these potential problems and seek help immediately if they find themselves exhibiting symptoms of such a disorder.

Thankfully, a variety of treatment programs and hotlines, such as the National Mental Health Hotline, are available to help people address these illnesses.

How Can You Combat an Inherited Tendency to Mental Illness?

When it comes to a genetic predisposition to mental illness, there’s more good news, as living with this predisposition doesn’t mean that your treatment won’t work.

There are certain things that having a generic predisposition does mean, however. Most importantly, it means that you need to be more aware of certain symptoms than other people might need to be. Speak with your family members, and ask those who have suffered from mental illness some questions: When did their symptoms start to manifest? What symptoms did they experience? What treatment worked, and what treatment didn’t? There’s no guarantee that you will have the same experience, but it may help to have additional insight into the experience of someone in your family who has already endured a disorder that you may someday experience.

Some also recommend consulting a mental health professional to obtain insights into the types of symptoms that you should watch out for and make sure that you are taking the right preventive steps in order to keep a potential mental illness at bay. You can also visit a genetic counselor, who may be able to give you better insight into your family history, your risk exposure to mental illness, and what you can do to prevent or treat that disorder.

Finally, while a genetic predisposition may make you more likely to suffer from a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that treatment won’t work. Therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, alternative healing modalities, and more have a wide range of evidence that proves their effectiveness in fighting off mental illness. You do not have to suffer with your disease in silence, and with treatment, you can permanently control your mental illness.

Keep in mind that there are a number of mental health resources at your disposal, regardless of what symptoms you are dealing with and what sort of help you need. One such example is our National Mental Health Hotline, which is designed to give individuals access to the help, information, and resources that they need. You can reach us at 866-903-3787. If you are suffering and don’t know where to turn, give us a call today to start receiving the help you need.