Is Mental Illness Inherited? How Family History and Environment Impact Mental Health

“My parent has schizophrenia – am I doomed to have the same thing?”

“My brother has bipolar disorder – I’ve seen how he suffers, and I fear my own children will develop it too. What is the chance my own children will have bipolar disorder?”

“I have been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I feel responsible for causing my illness because I smoked lots of cannabis when I was young, and I heard that causes it…is that true?”

“My child has been diagnosed with ADHD. Is it my fault for passing on bad genes? Or is it because I am a bad parent?”

As a genetic counselor working exclusively with people with psychiatric disorders and their families, I help my patients better understand what we know from research about the causes of mental illness. More importantly – I support them through processing what this better understanding means for them, often by addressing difficult questions. My goal is to make my patients feel empowered with information, and hopeful about their futures. I am often successful, but I know that for each person who seeks out my services, there are probably at least 10 others who don’t – often because they are afraid that their worst and deepest fears will be confirmed. But the answers to questions that keep many up at night are most likely not as scary as one would think. 

I know that for each person who seeks out my services, there are probably at least 10 others who don’t - often because they are afraid that their worst and deepest fears will be confirmed

What do we know about the causes of mental illness?

Mental illnesses are complex disorders – that is, they arise as a result of genetic and environmental factors acting together.

Although we have known for a long time that genetics play a role in mental illness, we have not known much about the specific genes involved until quite recently, but even now we still don't know about them all.

How can a genetic counselor help?

Genetic counselors ask patients about their experiences and family history. Genes alone don’t typically cause mental illness, so understanding the full picture is important. Genetic counselors also help patients feel less guilty by discussing issues including the fact that we cannot control the genes that we pass on to our children, and also that while drug use may contribute to the development of mental illness it does not cause it. Perhaps best of all, a genetic counselor works with patients to help identify ways to reduce risk for mental illness (i.e. avoiding street drugs like cannabis or finding effective ways to manage stress), protect your mental health or assist with recovery.

Currently, there are no genetic tests to confirm a diagnosis of mental illness. Because our experiences and environment play an important role in the development of a mental illness, no genetic test will ever be able to tell us with absolute certainty who will and who will not develop a mental illness. If you are interested in discussing the chances of mental illness in your family, a genetic counselor can help by providing a detailed assessment of your family history.

Connect with a genetic counselor in your area using NSGC’s “Find a Genetic Counselor” tool.

Jehannine Austin, Ph.D., CGC is a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and is an associate professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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