Family Ties: The Impact of Genetics on Your Mental Health
by Jehannine Austin, Ph.D., CGC
If there’s ever been a year that pushes people to examine their mental health, 2020 would be it. Our world is facing some challenging times. Between living in a pandemic and the national conversation surrounding racism, violence and other injustices inflicted on members of the Black community, people are grappling with emotions that are hard to process while also dealing with the regular pressures of their daily lives.
Feeling depressed, anxious or afraid is to be expected in these unexpected times. But are these feelings a sign of a clinical mental illness, or simply a shorter-term effect of the stressors one might be facing?
While only a mental health professional can diagnose and treat mental illness, many people try to seek out answers and find ways to diagnose and treat themselves. One of the common ways people do this is by reviewing patterns in their family’s mental health history or by taking genetic tests that claim to reveal a person’s risk for mental illnesses—methods that often prove to be unreliable.
The tie between mental health and family genetics
Mental illness is linked to genetics, but a person’s mental health is never determined by genetics alone. Mental illness arises as a result of the combined effects of our genetics and our life experiences acting together. We don't ever really inherit mental illness itself, but what we can inherit is a vulnerability to suffer from mental illness.
How much genetic vulnerability we have varies according to our DNA. Some of us have very little, others will have a lot. So, people who have close family members who live with psychiatric disorders might have a higher chance than other members of the population to experience a psychiatric illness themselves. However, it's by no means a guarantee, and most of us are somewhere in the middle.
When people who have inherited more vulnerability to develop mental illness experience certain situations in life, there is a higher likelihood that they will experience a psychiatric disorder.
Beyond Genetics: Factors that can contribute to someone developing a mental illness
In addition to genetic vulnerability factor, environmental or experiential vulnerability factors are also important in the development of mental illness.
Environmental or experiential vulnerability factors can take many forms. For example, if a birth involves complications, like a cord being wrapped around a baby’s neck, that baby might have an increased vulnerability to developing mental illness in later life. Children who are born in the winter months have a very small but increased chance for developing some kinds of mental illness than children born in the summer months. Even something like a childhood head injury can increase vulnerability a little bit.
Other life experiences increase the chance of mental illness, too. For example, using a lot of cannabis during the formative teenage years can increase vulnerability to certain kinds of mental illness later. Similarly, situations that we experience as being stressful like job loss, oppression, family or relational problems, or the death of a loved one are also life experiences that can contribute to the development of mental illness.
The critical thing to know is that none of these things on their own are enough to cause mental illness. For mental illness to occur, these life experiences that make us vulnerable must occur in combination with our genetic vulnerability, and surpass an individual’s coping mechanisms.
The Trouble with Using DNA Tests to Diagnose & Treat
Mental illness still carries a stigma in today’s society, so a mail-order DNA test might seem like an easy first step to see if treatment is needed. However, there are currently no genetic tests that can diagnose mental illness; these are conditions that are diagnosed based on clinical interview by physicians like psychiatrists.
Treatment can be really tricky for people with psychiatric disorders and often involves a lot of trial and error. Many people have to try multiple different medications before they find one that works for them, and they may experience horrible side effects during the process - this process can be agonizing. Because of this, people might be inclined to try a genetic test that promises to provide quick answers about what medication might work best. However, it’s important to know that currently, there are no tests on the market to predict response to psychiatric medications that meet the stringent thresholds for FDA approval. This is a very active area of research at the moment and there are some promising findings, but not enough is known to say whether these tests are effective in producing better mental health outcomes with fewer side effects for patients.
What can you do to ease feelings of depression and anxiety?
We don't have to be diagnosed with a mental illness in order to take actions that can be protective for our mental health. If possible, a good first step is to try to remove some of the outside stressors and add in protective factors like a nutritious diet, a good night’s rest and regular exercise.
Given the current environment, these things might be hard to do, and indeed, this alone might be the reason someone is feeling unstable or sad. If that’s the case, finding more effective ways to manage stress can be helpful. What this looks like will be different for each individual, but could include things like meditation, spending time with loved ones, or taking care of a pet. It is important for each of us to identify what helps us decompress, and to prioritize time in each day for those things.
If you’d like to learn more about mental illness and its ties to genetics, and more ways to protect your mental health, make an appointment to see a genetic counselor by visiting www.findageneticcounselor.com
Jehannine Austin, Ph.D., CGC, is a past president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.