Mental Disorders That Run in Families: Inheritance or Education

If several members of a family have a mental disorder, this may be due to genetics, but also to environmental and educational factors. We tell you more below.
Mental Disorders That Run in Families: Inheritance or Education

Last update: 11 July, 2022

In the genealogical tree of many families, there are recurring mental disorders. In some cases, they’re the same conditions, and in others they’re different. This poses the question of whether these occurrences are coincidental. Do sufferers share specific genetics? Or is it the family environment and educational patterns that lie behind the mental disorders that run in families?

This is a question that’s interested scientists for decades and on which significant research has been conducted. Currently, the findings point in the same direction: it’s a combination of heredity and education that gives rise to the appearance of mental disorders.

Are mental illnesses hereditary?

Genetic factors play an important role in the appearance of mental disorders. In fact, certain clinical conditions seem to have a considerable genetic load. This means they often manifest in several members of the same family.

According to some studies, these people have inherited a genomic architecture that predisposes them to suffer from mental illness. Therefore, it’s possible to identify some mutations or genetic alterations that are responsible for these shared mental disorders.

However, it’s important to highlight several aspects:

  • Genetic inheritance isn’t decisive. For example, research suggests that, in the general population, the risk of suffering from schizophrenia is one percent. This increases to six-ten percent if one parent suffers from the disorder, and 50 percent if both do. Therefore, despite the increased chances, it’s also possible that the individual won’t ever develop the disease.
  • Diseases aren’t inherited, but predispositions are. This not only means that genetics isn’t decisive, but also that an individual doesn’t have to develop the same disorder as their relatives. They may develop a much milder variant or even a different disorder. For example, in a family with a predisposition to anxiety, one member may suffer from generalized anxiety disorder while another has social phobia.
woman in fear
At a general level, a predisposition to certain conditions and mental disorders is inherited.

The influence of the environment and education

Taking into account that genetic inheritance isn’t a definitive condition for developing a mental disorder, we must focus on the environment and education.

As a matter of fact, the environment and the circumstances in which we grow up play a crucial role.  In this respect, mental disorders that run in families are influenced by the following processes:

Epigenetics

Genes and environments interact in a closer and more relevant way than we might think, and they do so mainly through epigenetics. This mechanism regulates the expression of genes. It means that the information contained in an individual’s DNA is translated based on their experiences with the environment.

Epigenetics affects how an individual reacts to environmental factors. Therefore, it influences the probability of them developing a mental disorder as a result.

The most surprising findings in this regard come from studies conducted with pairs of twins. In this research, only one twin of each pair had a mental disorder, thus ruling out any genetic cause. The research concluded that epigenetics is responsible for the presence or absence of the disease.

Attachment bonds

The bonds established with the main caregivers during childhood can act as a risk or protective factor against the development of mental disorders. Thus, the risk in an infant who establishes a secure attachment and enjoys having their basic needs met at all levels is lower.

On the contrary, those children who are victims of neglect, abuse, or indifferent or ambivalent caregivers are more vulnerable to the possible triggers of a mental disorder. In fact, these early bonding experiences can counteract, to a certain extent, the genetic predisposition to a disorder. Alternatively, they can exacerbate it.

Modeling

We must remember that parents are the first referents for a child. It’s thanks to their parents that children learn how to think, feel, behave, and interpret the world. Consequently, if one of the parents (or both) has a mental disorder, it’s likely that they offer an inadequate model. This is assumed by the child.

Perhaps they learn to perceive or attend with more focus on the negative aspects of reality. This is a risk factor for depression. Alternatively, they might learn to be overly vigilant, cautious, and fearful. These factors are associated with anxiety disorders.

Seeing how those closest to them react, manage their feelings, and function in the world means the child assumes these patterns as their own. If they’re not the most appropriate, they can harm their mental well-being both in the short and long term.

A parent with poor social skills or poor coping strategies is only able to show their offspring the same. Thus, the difficulties that they experience themselves will probably repeat in their children.

Life experiences

Finally, even with the best upbringing and care, there are certain life events that can trigger the onset of a psychological disorder.

For example, the loss of a close family member, being abused or bullied, experiencing socioeconomic difficulties, or coping with great stress during childhood are all risk factors.

Sad boy, depicting mental illnesses that run in families.
Stressful life events can contribute to the development of a psychological disorder.

Mental disorders that run in families: action and prevention

When there are mental disorders that run in families, it’s likely to cause concern in family members when they consider having children themselves. It’s inevitable that they’ll wonder if any disorders will be passed on to their own children. However, in reality, we can’t control genetic inheritance although fortunately, it’s never decisive. That said, we can control its expression and the way in which the environment contributes.

Thus, it’s important to try to eliminate risk factors and enhance protective ones. For example, to offer safe bonds, and loving and respectful parenting environments. Furthermore, to educate in intelligence and emotional management. Indeed, since it’s the interaction between heredity and environment that determines mental health, let’s try and contribute positively as much as possible.

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  • Dempster, E. et al. ‘Disease-associated epigenetic changes in monozygotic twins discordant for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder’, Human Molecular Genetics doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddr416
  • Mardomingo, M. J. (2015). Epigenética y trastornos psiquiátricos. PediatríaIntegral, 524.
  • Salamanca-Gómez, F. (2008). Genómica y esquizofrenia. Gaceta Médica de México144(6), 547-548.