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Nature V. Nurture - Are Mental Illnesses Genetic?

Mental illness is no joke. Nearly 1 billion people globally live with a mental disorder - and if you are one of those people diagnosed, it's only natural to want to know where the disorder came from. Why you? Was it situational? Did your mom pass it down?

In 2013, a study by NIH was done to try and determine whether mental illnesses had similarities, and if those similarities between illnesses determined a genetic connection. In the study, scientists focused on ADHD, Autism, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depression, and Schizophrenia - 5 mental illnesses that all share symptoms, making it challenging to determine between them during the diagnosis process. These 5 psychological issues have also been noted to be 'passed down' through generations.

In looking through the study, researchers found that there was two sets of similarities between the diseases and the genetics surrounding them - the first being variations in two separate genes having to do with regulation of calcium delivery to your neurons. These genes are known to affect the circuitry in your brain with regard to emotion, thinking, attention, and memory - which are all functions that can be disrupted when you are suffering from mental illness.

Even though there is currently no genetic test you can take to determine whether or not you are actively passing down your depression, you can look back at familial lines to understand potential genetic risks of developing mental illness. If, for example, someone in your close family suffers from mental illness, your risk for developing one yourself goes up. This does not mean that you are guaranteed to develop a mental illness, however, as there are multiple different factors that must be taken into account when determining the causes of mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness is usually caused by a combination of the following factors:

  • biology

  • genetics

  • environmental factors

  • psychological factors

But how do those factors reveal themselves in your day to day?

Biological: Biological factors stem from your brain chemistry, and your physical makeup. In your brain, communication happens via nerve cells and chemicals. Sometimes, the chemicals aren't the right level for the communication to happen on the right frequency. Often times in this case, mental health practitioners will prescribe medications to alter the chemical balances and make the communication smoother!

Other biological factors that can have an effect on mental illness development:

  • Infections

  • Brain defects or injury

  • Prenatal damage

  • Substance abuse

  • Poor nutrition/exposure to toxins

Genetic: Many experts believe that mental illness runs in families, and suggest that if you have a close family member who suffers from a mental illness, you are more susceptible to developing one. The mental illness itself isn't necessarily passed from gene to gene, but the susceptibility is. You have a higher risk of developing a mental illness if your mother had one, versus if she did not.

Environmental: Certain stressors and events in life can trigger a mental illness in someone who is susceptible - or can worsen symptoms in someone who is already diagnosed.

  • A dysfunctional home life

  • Changing jobs/changing schools

  • Death or divorce

  • Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness

  • Substance abuse by you, or by your parents/people in the home

  • Societal and cultural expectations

Psychological: Pre-existing psychological factors, or new situations, can also add to the development (or growth) of a mental illness.

  • Severe psychological trauma as a child - emotional, physical, sexual abuse, etc.

  • Important loss early on, such as parent

  • Poor ability to relate to others, lack of social skills

  • Neglect

There's no way to know, or to guarantee with any certainty, whether or not you developed your mental illness due to genetics, or to one of the many other reasons that mental illnesses come about! What can be done is looking into familial history of mental health issues, discuss with your relatives, and understand any susceptibility you may have had at birth - and what susceptibility you could pass on to your children in the future.

Bhandari, S. (2020, June 30). Causes of mental illness. WebMD. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from,on%20in%20families%20through%20genes.

Kovacevik, R. (2021). Mental health: Lessons learned in 2020 for 2021 and forward. World Bank Blogs. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from,a%20person%20dies%20by%20suicide.

NIH, N. I. H. (2015, May 15). Common genetic factors found in 5 mental disorders. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

NIMH, N. I. M. H. (2020). Looking at my genes: What can they tell me about my mental health? National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

Wisner, W. (2022, July 28). Are mental illnesses inherited? what to know about your family's health. Healthline. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from


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