Read on to discover the genetic, social, and environmental factors that affect mental health, and how to beat them.
Is Mental Health Hereditary?
Mental health issues aren’t rare or something to be ashamed of. According to Johns Hopkins, 26% (more than a quarter) of adults experience a diagnosable mental health condition in a given year. So, whether you are in that 26% or know and love someone who is, you’re likely to be touched by the effects of poor mental health at some point in your life. That experience might have led you to ask some questions.
Maybe you’ve noticed that issues like depression, bipolar disorder, OCD and anxiety disorders seem to run in families. You are wondering:
• Is mental health hereditary?
• Are some mental health issues genetic?
• Does "good" or "bad" mental health run in families?
Let’s look at all those questions and discuss how mental health issues manifest themselves across families.
Which Mental Health Issues Run in Families?
The question of which mental health issues run in families is interesting. Some mental health qualities are passed on genetically; In other words, they're hereditary. However, your mental health also depends on the environment you grow up in, the stressors you experience, and even your physical health.
According to the National Institute of Health, the mental health conditions that are most closely linked to genetics are:
• Bipolar disorder
• Anxiety disorders (which have a strong hereditary correlation of around 30-50%)
But a relative suffering from any of the above doesn’t mean you will and certainly doesn't mean everyone in the family will. And a family history free of mental health issues may not stop — you, your children, or future generations — from suffering from poor mental health.
This is partly because of epigenetics — the process of genes getting "activated" by factors as diverse as diet, lifestyle, stress, and illness. Epigenetics and mental health is a relatively new field of research, but models suggest that changes in neural networks in parents who have experienced trauma can be passed down to children and that stressful experiences in childhood increase the likelihood of mental health disorders in later life. This is true even when other factors are corrected for. You can’t change any of this, but being aware of it is a tool in your kit.
Who Can You Inherit Mental Health Conditions From?
Mental health conditions are rarely just inherited. Lifestyle factors, psychology, stressors, general health and more are all factors in your mental health. But a predisposition for poor mental health can be inherited from either side of your family. Genetic components could be at play, even if your parents and grandparents have (or seem to have) excellent mental health.
We don’t understand the mechanics of inheriting mental health conditions well enough to test for, say, a "depression gene," but if a great-grandparent suffered from major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, it is possible you inherited a gene that makes it more likely you will, too. The question is, how would you even know?
As attitudes towards and understanding of mental health have improved, diagnoses have increased. This will make the future study of mental health's hereditary components much easier. It should help with diagnosis and treatment and open the field to early interventions. Avoiding potential mental health issues will become easier over the coming decades.
Apart From Genes, What Contributes To Mental Health?
Even if genetics plays a part in a mental health issue, there are always more factors at play. The CDC cites the following as significant factors in mental health disorders for many people, but this is in no way an exhaustive list of what could contribute to mental health conditions:
• Adverse experiences in childhood like abuse, neglect, trauma, or witnessing violence.
• Chemical imbalances in the brain (these can sometimes be genetic).
• Use of drugs or alcohol (sometimes to deal with trauma).
• Isolation and loneliness.
• Chronic medical conditions
It is generally understood that stressors of all kinds affect our mental health. This includes financial or material instability, work stress, worries for family members who may be struggling… the list goes on. Remember that 26% stat at the beginning of the article? While 26% of people live with mental illness in any given year, 46% do so at some point in their life. That’s almost half of the population. So, whether or not mental illness is hereditary, it touches nearly everyone. But it can be dealt with or even headed off at the pass.
Can Hereditary Mental Health Issues Be Mitigated?
If you’re asking if mental health is hereditary, you’re probably wondering whether there's a way to mitigate genetic factors in mental health.
The short answer?
Strong support networks (familial or otherwise), early diagnosis, improved material conditions, and a healthy lifestyle are all great ways to stave off potential hereditary mental health issues. Because so many factors influence a person's mental health, it's important to control what we can.
Social prescriptions for support groups during difficult times and gym memberships that encourage exercise to produce endorphins and a sense of well-being are increasingly popular recommendations in the medical world. Individuals can also take it upon themselves to consume less alcohol, eat healthier, or spend more time outside. However, this can be tough without outside support if poor mental health or material conditions are already an issue.
Simple steps like mindfulness practices, walking more, and incorporating fruit and vegetables into your daily diet can really affect whether or not a potential hereditary mental health issue occurs, particularly with things like GAD and moderate depression.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet for mental health. But the hereditary component of poor mental health doesn’t spell doom. Awareness around the issue, proactive steps, lifestyle changes and stress management can help you stay mentally healthy no matter what genetics and the world has thrown at you.