Are mental illnesses genetic? What is the full story?

If you live with a mental illness, you understandably want to know its origins, even if you may have inherited it. But the answer to whether mental illness is genetic is complicated.

Research has found that mental illness probably has a genetic component, but that mental illness is probably caused by a combination of genetic and environmental components. And what is more, certain mental health disorders — like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression — are more closely linked to genetics than other disorders.

Studies looking at the connections between genetics and mental illness are ongoing, and much remains to be learned. Here’s what we know so far about genetics and mental illness, plus how to get the help you need to feel like yourself again if you’re diagnosed with a mental illness.

According to the research analysis of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), mental illness is usually caused by a combination of four main factors:

  • genetics
  • biology
  • environmental factors
  • psychological factors

At this time, there no genetic testing can take to determine if you have a gene that would make you more likely to develop a particular mental illness, although studies on this are ongoing. Instead, you can look to your family line to help understand your genetic risk for developing mental illness.

For example, if one or more close family members are living with a certain mental illness, your risk increases. However, having a higher risk does not mean that you will develop that mental illness. Your inherited genetics alone play a role in the development of mental illness.

However, there are certain mental and behavioral conditions that are more likely to have a genetic component, according to the NIH. These include:

As the NIH notesSeveral genetic factors are found in all five of these disorders, including CACNA1C Y CACNB2 (genes that regulate calcium activity in neurons). In addition to these, the researchers found that people with all five disorders had variations on chromosomes 3 and 10, although it remains unclear how these genetic variations influence disease progression.

Let’s dive into some of the mental illnesses that can have a genetic component and what to know about how genes influence these disorders.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings that alternate between mania (or hypomania) and depression. It affects 2.6% of American adultsamounting to about 5.7 million people.

Research on the genetic origins of bipolar disorder is incomplete but continues. However, it is clear that bipolar disorder is hereditary. The risk is higher if you have a first-degree relative with the disorder, such as a parent or sibling. Some people who have first-degree relatives with bipolar disorder will be more likely to develop the disorder than others, and many people with first-degree relatives who have bipolar disorder will not develop it at all.

A 2014 study published in The application of clinical genetics found a connection between single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and the development of bipolar disorder. However, SNPs are common genetic variations, and most people who have them do not have bipolar disorder. The study team argues that more research is needed to understand the association between SNPs and bipolar disorder.

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses; affects approximately 350 million people worldwideand about 16.9% of Americans. Depression is more than just feeling down or sad. It involves severe feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and agitation. Depression can make it hard to work or maintain social connections; and increases your risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Most experts have noted that depression runs in families, and people experiencing depression may notice that a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, is also experiencing depression. Twin studies have found a 37% inheritance rate for depression.

The full genetic components of depression are still being studied and are not well understood. Some of the genes thought to be involved in the development of depression are genes that regulate neurotransmitters. For example, some studies have focused on the serotonin transporter gene, as serotonin is known to play a role in depression. But exactly what that role is, is not yet fully understood.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting about 20% of us at one time or another in our lives. Anxiety disorders are characterized by extreme feelings of fear that can be incapacitating and make it difficult to function. There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including:

Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, and both environmental and genetic susceptibilities are thought to contribute to the development of these disorders. Studies of twins and close relatives have found that genetics play a role at a rate of 30-50%.

As in depression, the genes that influence the development of anxiety are not fully understood. Genetic association studies have found links between anxiety and certain genes, including 5-HTT, 5-HT1A, BDNF and MAOA. But it’s not clear what these associations mean and how they interact with other contributing factors, such as environmental factors, childhood trauma and life stress.

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that typically arises in late childhood to early adulthood and is defined as psychosis. People with schizophrenia experience hallucinations, delusions, have difficulty concentrating, and may exhibit antisocial behavior. About 1% of people experience schizophrenia.

There are some strong links between having a family member with schizophrenia and developing it. If you have a close relative with schizophrenia, your chances of developing it increase from 1% to 10%. If both parents have it, your risk increases to 50%. Of course, not everyone with a close family member who has schizophrenia will develop it.

The genetic components of schizophrenia are still being studied, and researchers don’t have a complete picture at this time. One theory is that a microdeletion on chromosome 22 (22q11) may contribute to the development of schizophrenia.

Again, genetics is just one aspect that can increase your chances of developing a particular mental illness. Experts agree that genetics alone is not the only cause of mental illness. Here are some other contributing factors:

Treatment for mental illnesses depends on the type you are experiencing. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help diagnose your mental illness and develop a treatment plan for you. Different types of therapies treat different mental illnesses; The most important thing is to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable and safe and who takes your concerns seriously.

Click here to learn more about the best telehealth services to get the therapy you need at home.

In addition to therapy, medicine it can be helpful, and in many cases necessary, when trying to manage mental illness.

For some people, medications may only be needed a few times or for a limited time. Other people will need to take some form of medication for mental illness for the rest of their lives. You shouldn’t be ashamed of taking medication for mental illness – it can save many people’s lives.

Finally, Changes in lifestyle — when combined with necessary medication and therapy — can be vital for people living with mental illness. This can include making sure you get enough sleep, eating regularly, getting healthy exercise and body movement, and incorporating mindfulness and meditation.

While there are certainly links between genetics and mental illness, there’s still a lot we don’t know. This can be frustrating if you are searching for answers to a mental illness you experience, or wondering if you might develop a mental illness that seems to run in your family.

Experts now believe that there is likely a genetic component to most mental illnesses, even as research continues to uncover more information. But remember that just because your family has a mental illness doesn’t mean you will inherit it.

If you are diagnosed with a mental illness, there are many treatment options for you and it is possible to live a full and balanced life.


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