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Mental Health and Genetics

Genetics are only part of the mental health picture

If you are worried about your mental health or that of one of your family members, you are not alone. You may be concerned that you have inherited a mental health condition — such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, an autism spectrum disorder or alcoholism. Or you may worry about passing on a genetic mutation for a mental health condition to your children.

In most cases, the development of a mental health condition or mental illness is due to more than one factor. In other words, while genetics likely plays a role, experiences and environmental factors also play a significant role in the development of mental illness.

Some of the genetic changes that are linked to certain types of mental illness have been discovered, but it is likely that there are many more genes related to mental illness, which have not been identified by researchers. Because there is so much we do not know about genetics of mental health conditions, and because experiences and environment play such a large role, there is usually no ideal test that can be done to determine if a person will develop mental illness. However, as with any condition that has a genetic component, family history is very important. Because everyone’s history is unique, genetic counseling can be valuable if you are concerned about mental illness, or worried that it seems to run in your family.

A genetic counselor can:

  • Explain how mental illness can develop and why you shouldn’t feel guilty or be ashamed if your family has experienced mental illness.
  • Discuss your personal and family history to help you understand the chance your children or other family members may develop a mental health condition.
  • Provide guidance even if you are the only one in your family who has mental illness, or if you are adopted and don’t have access to your family history.
  • Discuss mental health medications you are taking and how you and your doctor might consider changing them if you decide to become pregnant. 

Hear directly from a patient about her experience working with a genetic counselor.

If you choose to see a genetic counselor to discuss the genetics of mental illness, it helps to be prepared. Gather as much information as possible about family members’ experiences with mental illness, including:

  • What diagnoses they received
  • What medications they took or are taking for the mental illness
  • Their age at the time of diagnosis
  • Information about any history of hospitalization for the mental illness

Read more if you’d like additional information about mental illness and how genetic counseling can help.

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