Is Mental Illness Hereditary? Understanding the Impact of Genetics

Genetic factors are commonly referenced when discussing physical health and diseases, but family history can also affect mental health. If your family member has a history of mental illness or has recently been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it may help you understand your risk for developing one as well.

Though there are some mental illnesses that are hereditary, it doesn't mean you're certain to develop your blood relative's disorders. Research suggests psychiatric disorders are influenced by thousands of genetic variants, not to mention environmental factors. Understanding the genetic factors for mental illness can help you reduce your risk of certain disorders.

Understanding the Role of Genetics in Mental Health

The first step to determining potential risk for mental health disorders is to understand how your genes can impact your mental health.

The Genetic Factors Contributing to Mental Illness

Your genes are made up of DNA, which determines the traits and qualities passed down to you from your biological parents. While there is no one “disorder gene" you can inherit from a relative's psychiatric disorder, your genetic makeup can contribute to your mental well-being. For example, the CACNA1C gene is highly associated with psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Thousands of other genetic variations can collectively influence your risk of physical and mental illness. However, many genetic variations are common, meaning everyone has some degree of genetic risk for a psychiatric disorder. Those with a family history of certain disorders may have an increased risk because of a similar genetic makeup as a parent or relative with a mental illness.

The following mental illnesses are genetically inter-correlated:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia

For instance, a genetic study on linked diagnoses found that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have 70% of the same associated genetic signals. This study revealed that obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia nervosa shared genetic architecture. Major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder also have genetic overlap. These connections may indicate the reason why half of the individuals diagnosed with one mental health disorder will be diagnosed with a second or third, often making people feel discouraged.

However, understanding the genetics behind a mental health disorder can provide comfort. For example, individuals with anxiety and depression, which are referred to as internalizing disorders, often have a genetic architecture associated with minimal movement throughout the day. Of course, this doesn't mean that those with sedentary jobs will develop anxiety and depression, but it's worth noting that risk factors can vary widely from person to person.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Debate in Mental Health

While mental illness can be hereditary, genes are not the sole factor that can cause them. For example, a child can develop the same mental health disorder as their parent, even if the condition is not known to be hereditary. Many factors can contribute to mental health, including:

  • Childhood trauma, abuse or neglect
  • Long-term stress
  • Social isolation
  • Poverty
  • Exposure to discrimination
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Financial stress or debt
  • Large-scale social or environmental issues, such as natural disasters or violence

This brings us to the nature vs. nurture debate. This psychological theory debates the influence of genetic inheritance and environmental conditions on our development. Some experts believe personality and behavioral traits, for example, are primarily caused by “nature” — our biological makeup. Others believe these traits are caused by “nurture” — the experiences and culture we adopt from others.

Certain psychiatric disorders have a significant influence on our DNA and environmental factors, also known as gene-environment interactions:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety/phobic disorders
  • Sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder

Some researchers believe that the nature vs. nurture debate around mental health is a false dichotomy, highlighting that the risk of developing a mental illness is due to contributions from both aspects. A study found that the estimated heritabilities of psychotic and neurodevelopmental disorders are usually higher than in mood and anxiety disorders, suggesting that a portion of the risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders may be more influenced by environmental factors.

The Impact of Family History on Mental Health

Though the risk of developing a certain mental illness may increase if another family member has it, there are many variables involved. Some mental illnesses have a higher degree of heritability than others.

Can Mental Illness Run in Families?

Mental illnesses can run in families, but they are generally caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological and genetic factors. Genes do not cause mental illnesses but may boost the likelihood of one. Some mental illnesses may have a stronger correlation to genetics than others. Even a well-researched genetic variant may only contribute a very small amount of risk.

Research shows if a parent has schizophrenia, their children are at a significantly increased risk for poorer mental health in adulthood. Likewise, children of parents with bipolar disorder may also have an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder, substance use, depression and other mental illnesses. Half of individuals with bipolar disorder have a relative with similar traits.

Those who have a relative with major depressive disorder are up to 3% more likely to develop the same condition. A 2021 study found that children of parents with a mental illness are at high risk for developing depression, anxiety and poor social functioning.

According to twin and family studies, OCD has about 50% genetic heritability.

How Does Mental Illness Affect Families?

Having a loved one with a mental illness is strongly associated with family stress, which can take a substantial toll on family members and other relationships. In some cases, an individual with a mental illness may be unable to socialize, get a job or care for themselves. With emotional, financial and logistical challenges, it's common for families to experience:

  • Changes in the family dynamic
  • Burnout
  • Poor communication
  • Grief
  • Guilt or shame
  • Worry about the future
  • Isolation from one another
  • Hopelessness or anger

For example, research shows that those who live with PTSD often have a difficult time connecting with others and avoid social situations, putting extra strain on other family members. Relatives of those with PTSD, including children, may experience behavioral problems that make it challenging to get along. Likewise, 40% of family caregivers of people with OCD reported a high burden level and extreme distress. OCD is also associated with creating financial, work-related, social, mental and health challenges for families.

Managing Your Mental Health With a Hereditary Predisposition

If your parent, a sibling or other relative has a mental health disorder, there are strategies you can use for reducing your likelihood of developing that disorder.

Understanding Your Family History

Knowledge of your family's health history can give you the best idea of determining your risk for a certain mental health disorder. The first step to gaining a better understanding of your family's mental health history is talking to your relatives. You'll want to start with those most closely related to you, including parents and siblings.

Talking with grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and half-siblings can also be helpful. Create your own family history record to organize everything you've learned about known conditions or illnesses in your relatives. Collect any relevant information in a document and share it with your health care provider and other family members. Update the record as new conditions or diagnoses arise.

Strategies for Managing Mental Health

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for any mental health disorder. The same mental illness can impact two individuals much differently and with varying intensity. It's important to know there are many strategies for managing your mental health or coping with a family member's mental illness, such as:

1. Maintain a Healthy Diet

Studies have found that diets high in refined sugars can worsen mood disorders like depression and promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Eating a balanced diet can help improve your mood, energy level and overall brain function.

2. Practice Mindfulness

In moments of stress and uncertainty, mindfulness can help create a sense of calm. Mindfulness can help you regulate your negative emotions by focusing on the present and not on the “what ifs” of the future. Mindfulness has been proven to be an effective protective barrier against mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and stress. Meditation is a common form of mindfulness that can prevent your mind from wandering by concentrating on your breathing and decentering yourself from negative thoughts.

3. Improve Sleep

Adequate sleep helps your brain and body function properly. Sleep deficiency is linked to a reduced ability to control behavior and emotions, increasing your risk for mental health disorders. You can achieve good quality sleep by removing electronics from your bedroom, going to bed at the same time every night and avoiding caffeine before bedtime.

4. Get Regular Exercise

Long periods of sedentary behavior can often lead to anxiety and depression. Physical activity can improve your mood, quality of life and capability to cope with negative emotions. Exercise can also reduce emotional exhaustion, mental burdens and the severity of depression.

5. Engage in Stress-Relieving Techniques

Find time to enjoy hobbies and activities that bring you joy, such as yoga, seeing friends, playing games or cooking your favorite meal. Try to find anything that brings you joy or relaxation, allowing you to control stress.

6. Reduce Alcohol Intake

Substance use is strongly associated with mental health disorders. Some individuals drink alcohol or take drugs to alleviate stress, which can increase the risk of developing a mental illness. Eliminating substance use can improve your physical and mental health and reduce the risk of addiction.

7. Set Goals

Setting goals can do wonders for your mental health, enabling you to improve productivity, relationships and self-esteem. For instance, perhaps you've always wanted to learn how to paint or travel to a new country. Big or small, setting goals helps you stay focused on your priorities and gives you exciting things to look forward to.

8. Be Intentional With Self-Care

Devoting time to your psychological and emotional well-being is important to maintain balance and reduce stress. Assess your current routine for any habits that you'd like to change, such as reducing social media usage or taking regular walks in nature to recharge.

9. Create a “No” List

Setting boundaries is critical for reducing stress and anxiety. Create a list of activities or situations that do not benefit your mental well-being or make you uncomfortable. This list will help you set expectations around your needs and wants and empower you to stick to your boundaries.

10. Seek Professional Help

If you are experiencing mental health problems or have a loved one struggling with mental illness, professional help can make a big difference. Common types of mental health treatment include therapy and prescription medication to help manage triggers and symptoms.

Mental health professionals may combine treatment methods for optimal relief. You can improve your quality of life and relationships with others by treating the roof of your mental health struggles, and working with compassionate, experienced professionals can provide a foundation for managing destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Exploring Support Systems for Individuals With a Hereditary Predisposition to Mental Illness

In addition to the strategies mentioned above, building and maintaining a strong support network can positively impact your mental health.

The Importance of Social Support

Maintaining healthy relationships with others is a key component of mental well-being. Connecting with people gives you a foundation for emotional support, where you can share your feelings and experiences and feel heard. Social support can also prevent you from isolating during stressful times or developing negative behavioral patterns.

Having strong social bonds means others are looking out for your health and happiness as well. You can build a support network through family, friends, neighbors, peers, community events or support groups. Group counseling services can also provide a safe place for you to voice your experiences and feelings about the mental health conditions in your family.

The Role of Diamond House Detox — Recovery in Supporting Mental Health

It's common for mental health conditions to go undiagnosed and untreated, particularly if opening up about your experience is challenging. If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of a mental health condition, treatment options are available. At Diamond House Detox, we offer personalized mental health services to meet you where you are.

Mental health treatment looks different for everyone — your path to mental well-being is unique. That's why we offer inpatient and partial hospitalization programs throughout Northern California. Depending on the severity of your condition, a local outpatient treatment center may work best, whereas our partial hospitalization option removes distractions that enable you to focus your energy entirely on yourself.

At Diamond House Detox, we provide various types of therapy and psychiatric care for the following mental health conditions:

Let Diamond House Detox Guide You on Your Mental Health Journey

Genetics may contribute to your risk of developing mental health conditions. Fortunately, there are many flexible treatment options to help you manage symptoms and establish healthy coping strategies in your life. At Diamond House Detox, we know there is no universal treatment for any mental illness. We pride ourselves on providing individualized care for co-occurring disorders centered around your specific needs.

Whether you struggle with depression, PTSD or a combination of symptoms, our dedicated therapists and psychiatrists can provide a range of treatment modalities. It's our goal to help improve your quality of life and build supportive connections along the way. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health challenges, reach out to us today to learn more about our treatment programs.