Mental health issues are common. In the United States, approximately 1 in 5 adults is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Mental illness and mental health issues can begin at any age, from early childhood through adulthood. Once considered taboo, mental health is a topic that has been gaining traction in recent years – especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health issues can refer to a variety of conditions, including disorders that affect moods, thoughts, and behaviors. Severity of mental illness can range from mild to debilitating. Becoming more widely recognized in society, mental health is as important as our physical health. It is no wonder why so many of us have the same question: are mental health issues hereditary? Let’s dive in to discover the answer.
What Causes Mental Health Issues?
In general, mental health is considered to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. The Mayo Clinic identifies the following contributing factors as some of the most common causes of mental illness:
- Inherited Traits: Mental health challenges are more common in individuals who have blood relatives with a mental health issue. It is believed that certain genes may increase the hereditary risk of developing a mental illness. In many cases, situations in life may trigger a mental health issue in someone who has an inherited susceptibility.
- Environmental Exposure Before Birth: Some mental illnesses and mental health issues can be linked to exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol, or drugs while in the womb.
- Brain Chemistry: Naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals to different parts of our brain and body. When our neural networks linked to these chemicals are impaired, our nerve receptors and systems change, causing the development of depression and other emotional disorders.
Below is a list of factors that may increase the risk of an individual developing a mental health issue, including:
- A history of mental illness in a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling.
- Stressful situations in life, such as financial problems, death of a loved one, or a divorce.
- An ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as diabetes.
- Brain damage due to serious injury or traumatic accident.
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs.
- A history of childhood neglect or abuse.
- Few friends or healthy relationships.
- A previously diagnosed mental illness.
It is possible to have more than one mental health disorder at a time. The effects of mental health issues can be temporary or long-lasting. Consult with a mental health provider at Diversus Health to learn more.
Mental Health & Genetics
While anyone can develop a mental health issue, the likelihood is higher for individuals with a family history of mental illness. Symptoms of hereditary mental health issues can range from mild to severe and vary in degree of severity for each family member.
Genetic factors contributing to the development of mental health disorders include:
- Epigenetic regulation: Epigenetics affect an individual’s reactions to environmental factors and can influence whether they develop a mental health issue as a result of the gene-environment communication. Our epigenetics changes over time. This means that the gene expression for mental health issues is not always “on” or “off.” The right combination of environmental factors and epigenetic regulation must be present for a mental health disorder to develop.
- Genetic polymorphisms: These are changes in our DNA which make each of us unique. The combination of one or more specific polymorphisms and certain environmental factors may lead to the development of a mental health issue.
- Single gene changes: These are rare, though not impossible.
Mental health issues are often the result of genetic factors combined with environmental factors that trigger the gene expression for mental health disorders. It can be difficult for doctors to determine an individual’s risk of inheriting hereditary a mental health disorder with multiple factors at play.
What is the likelihood of passing on mental health issues to children?
The likelihood of passing on mental health issues to your children is possible and variable across disorders. Genes are a risk factor in the development of mental health disorders. However, for genes to manifest a mental health condition, your child must encounter the right combination of epigenetic and environmental factors. These influencing factors may include lifestyle, environment, and/or underlying health conditions.
Bipolar disorder is one of the mental illnesses most likely to run in families. Children with a parent diagnosed with bipolar disorder have between a 15% and 30% likelihood of developing it. If both parents are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the child’s probability of developing the disorder increases to 75%. “Children of parents with mental illness are at risk for developing social, emotional, and/or behavioral problems, especially if they live in an inconsistent and unpredictable family environment,” says Dr. Lindsay Gries, Director of Internship Training at Diversus Health. “Children who experience some type of trauma during childhood are more likely to develop other types of mental health issues in the future.”
Unfortunately, the stigma that surrounds mental health can evoke a sense of shame in affected individuals and their family members. This can lead to isolation, avoidance, and lack of appropriate support or treatment.
“If you or someone you care about is experiencing a mental health disorder, it can be powerful and quite healing to talk openly about it with someone you trust – whether it be a therapist or a good friend,” says Dr. Gries. “Doing so can serve to decrease stigma, increase one’s sense of connectedness, and is one of many potential ways to practice self-care.”
*If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, we can help. Contact us at Diversus Health to request an appointment with our mental health providers. If you need immediate assistance, call our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.
*This article was reviewed by Dr. Lindsay Gries, Director of Internship Training at Diversus Health.