Sometimes members of several generations of a family struggle with the same health difficulties. This is true not only for physical health, but mental health too. People with a family history of depression are twice more likely than the average person to be diagnosed with depression themselves, and children of a parent with Bipolar disorder are at least three times more likely than the average person to receive the same diagnosis later in life.
Information about your relatives’ mental health difficulties can give you insight into what warning signs you might want to look out for in your own life. However, understanding the details of how mental illness shows up in families explains why your family history shouldn’t be taken as a prophecy about your future.
Is mental illness hereditary?
The exact causes of mental health conditions are not entirely known or understood, but the consensus among medical researchers is that they involve a combination of biological and environmental factors. Controversy and debate exists around how important “nature” and “nurture” each are in the manifestation of mental illness.
There is some evidence to suggest that genetic factors may increase susceptibility to mental illness — that would mean that older generations of a family where members struggled with mental health difficulties might pass on the risk of those challenges through their DNA.
Researchers also believe that epigenetics may play a particular role. That means that certain genes which create a risk for mental illness might not be triggered in one generation, but could be triggered in another. In this model, a person could have inherited the risk of mental illness from a previous generation even if no one in that generation had any apparent mental health struggles.
Environmental factors impacting mental illness in families
Families might pass down environmental factors that contribute to mental illness, beyond a possible genetic link. For example, children may begin to mimic a parent’s dysfunctional behavior, internalize its adverse mental health impact, and later display it for their own kids to mimic and internalize.
Families where adults live with a high degree of unmanaged stress set the example that stress is something to simply live with, rather than confront. Since stress negatively affects mental health, normalizing those conditions from one generation to the next means that stress can have an ongoing mental health impact.
Trauma can significantly impact mental wellness, and often chews up families across generations. For example, growing up in a home with domestic violence is a traumatic experience for a child — and, it makes the child more likely to be involved in abusive relationships in adulthood. If they then go on to have children in that relationship, the cycle of witnessing domestic violence continues, and multiple generations of a family become exposed to this risk factor to mental illness.
Knowledge as a strength
Family history isn’t destiny, and yet the way we think about family history statistics often makes the risk seem greater than it is in reality. As an example, take the statistic that you have a 1 in 9 chance of developing schizophrenia if you have a sibling with schizophrenia. Nine is a pretty small number, so you might find yourself worrying that you’re very likely to struggle with mental illness the way your sibling does.
But, if you have a 1 in 9 chance of developing schizophrenia, that also means you have an 8 in 9 chance of NOT developing schizophrenia. In other words, the most likely scenario remains that you will not have a mental illness.
If you do come to have the same or a similar mental health condition as a family member, there could be an opportunity to learn from their experience, rather than only see yourself as hindered by your family history. Your family member might be able to share coping strategies that have worked for them, mistakes they wish they had avoided in their recovery journey, and feelings of empathy and support.
Getting proactive about mental health
The best thing you can do to avoid mental illness is take care of yourself: eat nutritious meals, incorporate movement into your lifestyle, get enough sleep, manage stress, connect with people and activities you care about, and limit your use of drugs and alcohol.
You can also use therapy as a proactive tool to boost your mental wellbeing. Your therapist can support you in making and maintaining healthy lifestyle changes, and help you keep an eye out for warning signs that your mental health isn’t at its best.
Let’s focus on you — click the button below to book a free phone consultation to learn more about my therapy practice and talk about how we can work together to keep you mentally healthy.