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Can My Mental Health Condition Be Passed Down Genetically?

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Maybe your parent struggled with mental health and you are questioning if you are starting to develop the same signs. Maybe you are the parent and are wondering if your mental health condition could be passed onto your children. These are common thoughts for someone with a family history of mental illness. We have some answers.

It is important to first point out that mental health conditions develop from many different genetic and environmental factors working together. Currently, there is not any known, absolute link between one’s genetic history and/or one’s environment and the development of any specific mental health condition. However, there is some limited preliminary evidence that suggest genetics are in play for some mental health conditions like autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia. While there is considerable ongoing work that still needs to be done, researchers are working hard to study if there are specific links within genetics that can predict who will develop a mental health condition. This type of work is important because knowing which gene variants are involved can provide clues about mental health conditions, and has the potential to enhance diagnosis, prevention and early intervention in the future.

An example worth highlighting is bipolar disorder. Although having a biological parent with bipolar disorder does increase one’s risk of developing bipolar disorder, the absolute risk is still relatively low at about 8%. The risk of developing bipolar disorder in the general population is a little less than 1%. One reason that health providers often ask about history of mental health conditions is because of this increased genetic risk. However, it is all a matter of perspective! Consider this: If one of a child’s biological parents has bipolar disorder, their child is eight times more likely than the general population to develop bipolar disorder, but even with that family history, there is still around a 90% chance that your child will not develop bipolar disorder.

Parents can take into consideration family history and how that may impact their child’s risk of developing a mental health problem. Although that vigilance may not prevent the condition from developing, we know that early detection and early intervention of most health and mental health problems leads to better outcomes. Another example is if there is a family history of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, your child may or may not develop it – but paying attention to early warning signs of the disorder, speaking openly with the child’s primary care provider about your concerns and seeking out evaluation and intervention services if they are indicated could help lessen the impact of the condition.

There are more and more conversations occurring where people are choosing to see their individual differences, including health and mental health variables, as part of their identity as opposed to “disorders.” Understanding health and mental health risk factors, early detection and early intervention are certainly important. However, accepting and embracing individual differences can also be a great way to work toward feeling comfortable with the many unknowns about becoming a parent, and specifically becoming a parent when there is a known family genetic risk factor for mental health conditions.

For more information about Ochsner’s psychiatry and behavioral health services, click here.

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