Understanding a Connection Between Mental Illness & Family History

Many with a mental illness may feel like they need to silence their suffering. The stigma attached to conditions like major depression or bipolar disorder can suppress people into hiding their pain or continuing to live a debilitating life in secret. But organizations like The Mighty, To Write Love On Her Arms and Mental Kilter are bringing a sense of normalcy to mental disorders, supporting people facing mental health challenges.

Connecting with these types of organizations, along with seeking medication, therapy or a deeper understanding of a mental disorder, can help you (or help you support a loved one). The following sheds light on the topic of mental illness and family history. By learning more about mental illness and factors beyond your control that may have cultivated it, you can start working toward managing your disorder step-by-step and stigma-free. Connection, information, and knowledge are empowering in the context of your mental health.

Multifactorial Disordersman covering his face with his hands who has a mental illness which is depression

Mental disorders are known as multifactorial inheritance disorders. This means a combination of multiple genes, acting alongside environmental factors, can cause a genetic disorder, including behavioral, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Genetics Home Reference also explains that although disorders do cluster in families, there is no definitive pattern of inheritance. In other words, a person with a strong family history of mental illness may be at high risk for developing one, but it’s not concrete. Uncertain specific factors and varying genetic contributions make it difficult to clearly identify if a person inherits a disorder. You could have a high functioning depression, for example, whereas a sibling has a mild case or no symptoms of depression at all.

Environmental Effects

As a multifactorial disorder, mental illness arises due to environmental circumstances (in addition to genetics). Factors like trauma, emotional harm, substance abuse and even experiencing stress in the womb can make a person susceptible to a mental disorder. A paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information identifies research that a woman’s psychological distress while pregnant can affect fetal behavior and child development. Studies show that maternal anxiety and depression, for example, can cause an increased risk for neuro-developmental and mental disorders in children. Moreover, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul, during an interview with Scientific American, refers to a theory speculating that the effects of the stress hormone cortisol can increase the likelihood that anxiety and depression in a woman cause the baby’s development of mental illness.

5 Psychiatric Disorders Sharing Common Genetic Factors

The National Institutes of Health points to the idea that psychiatric disorders can indeed run in families, as well as share genes and similarities biologically. These five illnesses include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia.

Types of Mental Illness That Share Common Genetic Factors

  • Autism – Autism is a mental condition that usually develops during early childhood. It is considered as a highly heritable psychiatric disorder in which 1 out of 166 people has this neurodevelopmental disorder. Studies show that there is an 80 percent chance where the other twin will have this mental illness when one identical twin has it.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – This mental disorder is commonly diagnosed in children that affects teens as well in which progresses into adulthood. The symptoms may differ from person to person but the most common are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. This condition likely runs in the family where the genes acquired from the parents are one of the major determinants of having this condition.
  • Bipolar Disorder – Individuals with this type of brain disorder, have a condition wherein their serotonin and dopamine do not function properly which causes mood swings and unusual changes in energy and activity levels. This condition may be hard to diagnose but there are signs and symptoms that will help identify the disorder. Researchers believe that genetic predisposition is present in this condition where abnormalities are found on specific genes.
  • Major Depression – Major depression is also known as the major depressive disorder (MDD). A person with major depression has a constant feeling of sadness and find it difficult to carry out daily activities such as eating and sleeping. Studies show that at least 10 percent of individuals in the US are diagnosed with depression of which around 50 percent of the cause is due to genetic predisposition. In this case, if a person has a history of depression in their family, that person will more likely have a high risk of developing major depression in comparison with an average person.
  • Schizophrenia – Schizophrenia generally develops in early adulthood or late adolescence and have symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. It is more likely that one of the causes of this mental disorder and a primary determining factor is genetics or heredity. Individuals who have blood relatives with schizophrenia tend to acquire this chronic brain disorder themselves.

If your family has a history with one of these five illnesses, then you may be pre-dispositioned to developing one as well. Mental Health America provides a list warning signs that can indicate a mental illness, along with coping strategies, that you can refer to if you’re concerned you have symptoms. Lifestyle habits like healthy eating, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management and emotional support services can also help reduce symptoms of mental disorder and your risk of developing a mental illness.

Seeking Counseling & Exploring Mental Illness Furtherwoman in a psychologist's office who is dealing with a mental illness

Mental illness is complex, resulting from interacting genetic and environmental components; determining high or low risk isn’t clear-cut. But speaking with a certified therapist can help you with any mental illness-related concerns such as:

  • Managing an already diagnosed mental illness
  • Any concerning emotional or mental problems
  • Fear you may develop one because of your family history
  • Fear you may pass on a disorder because of your family history
  • Living with someone with mental health problems, helping a loved one in need

If you need to connect with a professional to share worries or ask questions, schedule an appointment with ThriveTalk. ThriveTalk specializes in tele-therapy services provided by certified therapists who can conveniently and remotely treat and counsel via video conference.