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Can Mental Illness Be Genetic?

I wrote this post two weeks ago, but I’ve been holding onto it for some reason. I decided to finally let go, and just post it. So here it goes:

Can mental illness be genetic?

As we see an increase in mental health problems, I think its time we talk about how genetics and mental illness are closely connected.

Mental illness can affect a person’s ability to think, feel, and act rationally. Yet more than 13% of the worlds population struggles with some form. But what causes it? The answer is still pretty unclear. We know that trauma, especially repeated, can rewire the brain and cause mental illness. We also know there is some genetic factor to it, but we don’t know quite how much of an impact genetics plays on mental illness. In this article, I’ll be discussing what we DO know.

To first understand how genetics play a part in mental health, I’ll need to explain a bit about what genes do. Genes work by producing specific proteins that may contribute to certain biological or behavioral traits. Each human has an estimated 80,000-100,000 genes in their bodies. The result of these genes, as well as environmental factors, dictates every human characteristic. It is becoming more evident that the vulnerability to mental illness with genetics is extremely complex. The question of WHICH genes contribute to that vulnerability is still unknown, as are non-genetic factors that contribute.

We do know that its not one or two genes causing mental illness in 1 in 5 Americans, rather, its a combination of several genetic factors that combine to create the perfect storm. Genetic research has been done that is comparable to that of research on physical illnesses and diseases such as sickle cell and asthma, but the results have been inconclusive, and do not explain the vast amount of people struggling with mental disorders today.

This brings me to generational trauma. It is extremely common for children of those diagnosed with mental disorders, to grow up and develop one of their own. The mental illnesses are not always the same, and some children raised by parents with mental illnesses grow up with completely normal brain function. It is still unclear how this happens, but tests have been done on mice to try to explain it.

A male mouse was exposed to the scent of a predator, causing extreme stress, for an extended period of time. After the mouse was removed from the situation, it was placed with a female, who had experienced no stress, to mate. As soon as the mating process was complete, the male was removed from the female, and not allowed contact again. The interesting part, all of the babies born from this pairing were born with higher levels of stress and anxiety than the average mouse, further proving that genetic mental illness can be developed even when the child has no interaction with the biological parents. This heightened anxiety could be passed down to up to 6 generations in the mice they studied.

Generational trauma can be one of the hardest cycles to break. You have to unlearn all of the toxic traits you were taught, all of the trauma responses your brain developed, all of the biases you now hold, but with proper therapy and support, it can be done. You are not destined to a life of misery simply because your parents couldn’t be the support you needed. Find new support, reach out, make friends. You can’t choose who you’re related to, but you can chose who you decide to be in your life. Find your tribe.

This is all still very new research, and we have a long way to go before we know anything for certain, but I have hope that with the resources and information we have today, we will get closer and closer to a cure everyday.




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