Environmental factors

Are Mental Illnesses Genetic? What’s the Full Story?

If you live with a mental illness, it’s understandable that you’d want to know its origins, including whether you may have inherited it. But the answer to whether mental illness is genetic is a complicated one.

Research has found that mental illness likely has a genetic component, but that mental illness is most likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental components. what’s more certain mental health disorders — such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression — are more closely tied to genetics than other disorders.

Studies looking at the connections between genetics and mental illness are ongoing, and there’s still much to be learned. Here’s what we know so far about genetics and mental illness, as well as how to get the help you need to feel more like yourself again, should you be diagnosed with a mental illness.

According to research analysis from 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 are no genetic tests you can take to determine if you carry a gene that would make you more likely to develop a particular mental illness, although studies around this issue are ongoing. Instead, you can look to your family line to help understand your genetic risk of developing a mental illness.

For example, if one or several close members of your family live with a particular mental illness, your risk increases. However, having an increased risk does not mean you will develop that mental illness. Your inherited genetics only play a part in the development of a mental illness.

There are, however, certain mental and behavioral conditions that are more likely to have a genetic component, according to the NIH. These included:

As the NIH notesseveral genetic factors are found across all five of these disorders, including CACNA1C and CACNB2 (genes that regulate the activity of calcium on neurons). Besides these, researchers found that people with all five disorders had variations in chromosomes 3 and 10, although it’s still unclear how these genetic variations influence disease progression.

Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the mental illnesses that may 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 adultswhich amounts to about 5.7 million people.

Research about the genetic origins of bipolar disorder is incomplete but ongoing. However, it’s clear that bipolar disorder runs in families. The risk is highest if you have a first-degree relative who has 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 contends that more research is needed to understand the association between SNPs and bipolar disorder.

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

Most experts have observed that depression runs in families, and people who experience depression may notice that a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, also experiences depression. Studies involving twins have found a 37% rate of inheritance for depression.

The full genetic components of depression are still being studied and aren’t well understood yet. Some of the genes that are 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 it is known that serotonin plays 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 point or another in our lifetime. 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, with both environmental and genetic susceptibilities thought to contribute to the development of these disorders. Studies on twins and close family members have found that genetics play a role at a rate of 30-50%.

Similar to depression, the genes that influence the development of anxiety aren’t 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 aspects, such as environmental factors, childhood trauma, and life stress.

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

There are some strong links between having a family member with schizophrenia and going on to develop it. If you have a close family member with schizophrenia, your chances of developing it increase from 1% to 10%. If both your 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 in chromosome 22 (22q11) may contribute to the development of schizophrenia.

Again, genetics is just one aspect that may make you more likely to develop a particular mental illness. Experts agree that genetics alone aren’t the only causes of mental illness. Here are some other contributing factors:

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

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

Besides therapy, medication can be helpful — and in many cases, necessary — when it comes to managing mental illness.

For some people, medication may only be needed sometimes, or for a limited period. Other people will need to be on some form of medication for mental illness for the duration of their lives. There should be no shame in taking medication for mental illness: it can be life-saving for many people.

Finally, lifestyle changes — when combined with needed medication and therapy — can be vital for people who live with mental illness. This may include making sure to get enough sleep, eating regularly, 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’re looking for answers to a mental illness you experience, or are wondering if you might develop a mental illness that seems to run in your family.

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

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

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