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Is Mental Illness Genetic?

What Causes Mental Illness?

If your family has a history of mental illness, you may be concerned about the possibility of inheriting or passing down certain mental health issues. But the reality of how humans develop mental illnesses is complicated. Keep reading to learn why people tend to develop mental health problems.

A Complex Issue

While the exact cause of most mental illnesses is unknown, it's becoming clear through that many conditions are caused by a combination of psychological, biological and environmental factors.

Certain mental illnesses have been associated with abnormal functioning of nerve pathways and brain circuits that connect specific brain regions. Nerve cells within the brain communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Influencing these chemicals through psychotherapy, medications and medical procedures can help the brain circuits run more effectively. Defects in certain parts of the brain have also been linked to various mental issues, as have injuries, poor nutrition and exposure to toxins, such as lead.

Other Causes of Mental Health Problems

Other factors have been associated with an increased risk of mental illness. These include:

Infections: Some infections can damage the brain and increase the risk of mental illness. For instance, a condition known as PANDA (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder) caused by the Streptococcus bacteria has been associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and various other mental illnesses in kids.

Prenatal damage: Some research indicates that birth trauma or disruptions of early fetal brain development might increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder.

Substance abuse: Alcohol and drug abuse have been linked to paranoia, depression and anxiety.

Genetics (heredity): Since mental health issues can run in families, a person is more at risk if they have a family member with a mental illness. Susceptibility to mental illness is passed on in families through genes. Scientists have known for some time that various psychiatric disorders tend to have genetic roots. Such disorders include bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and major depression. Researchers have even identified specific genes that may play a key role in each of these disorders. That said, experts think many mental illnesses stem from abnormalities in several genes. How these genes interact with environmental factors is also unique for every person

The Role of Environment

While underlying physical traits can leave a person more at risk for mental health issues, psychological and environmental factors play a significant role. These include:

  • Suffering severe psychological trauma as a child (physical, emotional or sexual abuse)
  • Early loss of a parent, sibling or someone close
  • Neglect during childhood
  • Substance abuse by parents
  • Divorce or death
  • A dysfunctional family life
  • Feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy, anger or loneliness
  • Changing schools or jobs
  • Social or cultural expectations (For instance, eating disorders can stem from the way society values beauty and thinness)

As you can see, mental health issues are complex conditions that can be caused by a combination of psychological, biological and environmental factors. If you believe you may suffer from a mental health issue, a qualified therapist can work with you to get to the root of your issues and help you learn effective, healthy ways to cope.

Our caring therapists can help you overcome life's greatest challenges. Contact us today!