Is Mental Illness Inherited?

A simple question: Is mental illness inherited? And the simple answer is, yes, it can be. And that’s where the simplicity stops.

 It is a very complex issue, and it leads on to one of the most agonizing dilemmas a person can face: “Should I be a parent?”

Let’s look at a few of the complicating issues.

  1. The causes of mental illness are not fully understood, but some problems are known to be caused by injury, illness, infections, trauma and stress.
  2. It’s also clear that some mental health problems run in families. What is inherited is often a ‘susceptibility’: mental illness won’t show up until it is triggered by some trauma or stress. Without the trauma, maybe they would be symptom-free for life.
  3. It’s all a matter of odds. If we do have an inheritable mental health problem, we increase the odds that our kids will also have them but nothing is certain. Mentally unwell parents can have perfectly healthy children, and neurotypical (i.e. ‘normal’) parents can have children with mental health problems. It is a lottery, but your genes do shift the odds.

This is a huge topic, especially if you are wondering whether or not to have a family. A short piece like this can’t hope to do any more than just raise the flag: “Think about it. Get advice.” Your doctor, psychiatrist or a genetic counsellor (yes, there are people who specialise in this) can help you sort through the issues.

And what if we already have children? Here’s the good news: people with mental illness can and do raise perfectly healthy, whole children. It might be harder, we might need a bit more support, but be optimistic. Also, our insights gained from our own mental health journey can help us be more intentional about our child’s ‘mental hygiene’: caring for the emotional and psychological well-being in such a way as to give them the best chance of a happy, healthy mental health.
An extra load we may find we are carrying is the vigilance: every flare of temper or odd bit of behaviour will probably trigger at least a small bit of anxiety, “Is this the start of some mental issue?” And, of course, it might be. Sigh, expect the best but, as things get clearer, get some advice. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference to how the road ahead is going to go for us and our child.