Can genetics impact mental health?

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Health Assured team

02 July 2024

Can genetics influence mental health?

Living with a mental health condition can be debilitating, so it’s natural to question where they originate from. Could it be because of experiences in childhood or trauma? Could it be because of social isolation? A loss of job? Substance abuse? Maybe an impact from long-term stress, or could it be passed down from a family member?

The impact of genetics on mental health has a long history, with scientists conducting research to understand the link for over a century. However, we are only beginning to understand the relationship.

What are genes and genetics?

Genes are the building blocks that form our cells and body. Genes contribute to personality traits, appearance, and overall health, such as eye colour and the hair texture. This is why children look like their parents and have similar features to family members.

Genetics is the study and science of genes and how traits are passed on from one generation to another.

Genetics and mental health

Genetically, many physical conditions are passed down from parent to child, such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and cancer, but could this be the case for mental disorders?

For years, scientists have investigated the connection between genetics, mental health, and how family history can affect mental wellbeing for better understanding, reduction of stigma, and to drive improved treatment.

Extensive research has gone into finding out the links between mental health and genetics, with many studies identifying that certain genetic components can impact mental health.

Scientists have long recognised the connection between family history and mental health conditions. Many case studies have been researched and studied to establish and understand this relationship, such as the non-fiction novel Hidden Valley Road with an insight into the Galvin family who had six schizophrenic children.

Despite this, scientists don’t fully understand what causes mental illness or why and how it is passed down generations. The link between mental health and genetics is widely unknown and it doesn’t follow typical patterns of inheritance. The overwhelming idea is that mental health is impacted through a combination of causes, such as genetics, trauma, and/or emotional abuse.

Genetic Predisposition

Many mental health conditions have a genetic underpinning with the National Library of Medicine recognising that “psychiatric disorders are recognized to be heritable and are influenced by thousands of genetic variants acting together.”

Having a family member with a mental health condition could mean that there is an increased risk of other family members developing the same mental condition. In fact, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), someone with a family history of depression are twice as likely to develop depression and those with relatives that have schizophrenia are up to eight times more likely.

According to Rethink Mental Illness, mental illness can run in families and depending on the relation of the family member the risk can become more severe. For example, the general population a 1 in 100 chance of having bipolar if they do not have a genetic connection, this risk then increases to 10 in 100 if one of your biological parents have the condition and jumps up even further to 40 in 100 if both biological parents have bipolar.

Vulnerable brain network

A study conducted in 2020, showed a common pattern of connections in the brain, affecting those with certain genetics and influencing the development of mental health issues. The research looks at the way the brain network is impacted by genes and how this can affect our brain’s ability to cope with mental health challenges.  

The author, Maxime Taquet, explains “those whose genes put them at higher risk of later developing psychiatric illness have a different pattern of brain connections.’ This disrupted network creates a vulnerability, making the person more susceptible to a range of mental health condition, not just one.

Other factors

Regardless of whether your family has any mental health conditions, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you will develop the condition. An increased risk does not mean a diagnosis. Much like in the novel Hidden Valley Road, only six out of twelve children developed schizophrenia, heavily suggesting that genetics alone are not a defining factor in the development of a mental health condition.

We can also see this in the case of John’s story on the Rethink Mental Illness. John has depression and his identical twin brother, who has the exact same genetic make-up, does not experience any mental health problems. John’s story isn’t unique and indicates that environmental and experience factors are just as important, if not more, when understanding the origins of mental health conditions.

Experience and environment

Our experiences throughout life will affect our mental health, how we cope with symptoms of mental health conditions, and how we respond to stressful situations. This is especially true for early experiences throughout childhood and adolescence. The environment we grow up in during childhood and adolescence is extremely important for emotional regulation and mental health. The way we are treated shapes the way we can develop and cope with mental health issues.

The brain is far too complex to pin down the cause of mental health conditions to one factor, like genetics. In fact, it’s often because of a multitude of reasons as to why someone may have or develop a mental health condition.

Some common causes to mental health challenges:

  • Social isolation or loneliness
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Traumatic event
  • Having long-term stress or burnout
  • Experiencing discrimination
  • Homelessness
  • Substance abuse

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