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The Role of Genetics in Mental Health

Genetics play a key role in the field of mental health. Genetics sometimes is confused with heredity. When you hear someone talking about inheriting something from their parents or ancestors, you automatically connect that with genetics and heredity. While the two are intertwined, there is a notable difference between them. Understanding this difference is essential when examining the role of genetics in mental health.

Genetics, Heredity and Heritability

Heredity refers to the traits and characteristics passed down from parents or previous generations. These can be physical (nose, eyes, ears) or psychological (depression, anxiety). Genetics is the study of heredity. Heredity is a method used to find out how a disease started. Genetics, on the other hand, are the tools used to diagnose what has been inherited. One cannot exist without the other.

The role of genetics in the field of mental health has offered society great understanding of why you behave, think and feel the way you do. Some research suggests you inherit at least fifty percent of both parents’ traits, whether physical or psychological.

Heritability refers to the percentage of genes that contribute to the cause of a person’s disorder. For example, a person may have depression due to having 50 percent of the disorder related to genes.

To determine the genetics in mental health, researches usually study twins, fraternal and paternal, due to the shared genetics between the two. Other researchers choose to study close family members. All research on genetics in mental health is done to figure out the age old question of are your behaviors, thoughts and actions a product of environment or were you born that way?

Nurture vs. Nature Debate

The debate between nurture and nature has been ongoing for years. Nature is how your genes are coded that determines which traits you will inherit. An argument for nature is that when twins are born and raised in separate environments, they are often found to have similar thoughts, feelings and behaviors throughout their lives. If this theory is true, then you also must agree with the idea that serial killers and other criminals are created genetically to be that way, no matter what positive influences they may have in their environment. This would also mean that at birth you are predestined to have certain mental health disorders, or not.

Nurture means the traits and characteristics that are learned throughout your life from cultural and environmental influences. For instance, you smoke cigarettes because you saw your parents smoke cigarettes. Or, you learn how to be happy and healthy by watching your parents exhibit these thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Convincing arguments can be made for both sides. Recent research has been providing evidence that the way you behave, think or feel is greatly a part of your genetic makeup. This has been found in mental health illnesses also, including schizophrenia, eating disorders, attention deficit disorders, depression and anxiety.

The Most Studied Psychological Illness with Genetics

Schizophrenia has been the most studied mental health disorder in the field of psychological genetics. It has always been accepted as being highly heritable, but the genetics of the disorder has not been known. Some studies are starting to reveal more, however. In a large study with 300 scientists in 35 different countries, schizophrenia has been found to have over one hundred gene variants, verifying schizophrenia has strong genetic origins.

You do not have to have all the gene variants to become schizophrenic. However, the more you have, the more likely you will exhibit the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Genetics and Eating Disorders

Researchers have found two genes that are connected to eating disorders, specifically when the disorder is shared among family members, or inherited from parent to child. This is astonishing news since for so long researchers have believed that eating disorders are the result of cultural influences.

Other research claims that at least fifty percent of acquiring an eating disorder is related to genetics. Many people may have the genes that can lead to eating disorders, but it is important to note that not everyone with eating disorder genetics will develop eating disorder symptoms. Environmental and cultural triggers will assist in the other fifty percent of determining whether a person will struggle with this disorder.

Genetics and Attention Deficit Disorder

Attention deficit disorder is a brain based illness. Research has shown, however, that children with attention deficit issues also have a parent or close relative with attention deficit disorder. This means attention deficit disorders are likely to be genetic. In addition, genes have been found in this illness that overlap with genes in those with autism and schizophrenia.

This knowledge has lead researchers to realize attention deficit disorders are not just behavioral disorders and instead, have neurodevelopmental components. Knowing this can help eliminate some of the labeling that is associated with attention deficit disorders (they have unruly behavior, lack of parenting, lazy, etc.).

Genetics in Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health diagnoses. Many studies support evidence that shows depression and anxiety can both be inherited illnesses. When it comes to genetics, there are some researchers who believe up to fifty percent of your likelihood in developing anxiety and depression can be linked to genes. The other factors that are linked to whether a person develops these disorders is contributed by your social connections, traumas in your life, and the environment in which you were raised.

Anxiety and depression, when compared to one another, were found to have a high correlation of genetic overlap. Meaning, those who were studied that had anxiety and those with depression were found to share very similar genetic components.

Find a Mental Health Counselor

One key finding in the research provided is that while genetics contribute a great deal to mental health disorders, they are not the only link. Knowing this, you can make significant efforts to ensure the environment you live in, the people you associate with and other influences are positive. You can see a mental health counselor to help you identify potential triggers which may lead to the development of a mental health disorder. Having genetics that are connected to a mental health disorder is out of your control. Focusing on positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors is in your control. This and mental health counseling can prepare you to better handle any symptoms that may develop and allow you to live the great life you deserve.

 


Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.