Is Mental Illness a Generational Curse?

  Monday, November 1, 2021

In the late 1980s, a special committee sat down and initiated the first workings of a great scientific endeavor known as The Human Genome Project (HGP). The project's goals were to study and decipher the human genome to understand further what constitutes our genetic inheritance. In layman's terms, a genome is a complete set of genetic instructions for an organism. Each genome contains all of the information necessary for an organism to be built, grow, and develop. DNA contains the instructions in our genome. DNA has a one-of-a-kind chemical code that directs our growth, development, and health. Meaning, if you were a scientist trying to look for a deficiency in the human body, you would look into the architectural compounds that designed it that way. 

Not only did the HGP bring some of the most brilliant minds together to understand the human body and psyche, but it also raised a lot of awareness for mental illness. Decades ago, there was no recognition of the role genetics played in mental illness. People who suffered from addiction, anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders were misdiagnosed, maltreated, and ultimately blamed for not behaving how society wanted them to. These findings, coupled with psychological research on the relationship between human experience and the psyche, are a well of information. We have finally started to get a clearer picture of what can be labeled a generational disease. 

Is Mental Illness Inherited? 

In this article, let's first look at the reasoning behind mental illness and its claim to be inherited. We'll then discuss what the implications might be later on. So, to start with: 

One of several risk factors that can lead to mental illness is genetics. Your genes are the blueprint for your body and brain growth, and they are passed down from your parents and ancestors.

Mental disease, like genetics, is very complex. There is no specific gene that predicts whether or not you may develop a mental disorder. For example, even something as basic as your eye color is affected by up to 16 separate genes! Instead, many genes influence how your brain develops, making you more or less likely to develop a mental disorder later in life.

Mental illness can run in families in some cases. Those with a mental disorder in their family may be slightly more prone to develop one themselves. Mental illnesses, on the other hand, are not solely a result of heredity. Both genetic and environmental variables have a role in their development. 

Many psychiatric diseases tend to run in families, suggesting hereditary bases, as scientists have long understood. Autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia are examples of such conditions. Because symptoms sometimes overlap, it can be challenging to discern between these five primary mental syndromes. Their related symptoms suggest that they may have biological similarities as well. 

Despite the presence or absence of genetic elements, no one psychiatric or mental condition has a 100 percent genetic basis or heritability. Numerous environmental factors can have a significant impact on the chance of having a disorder. As a result, many of these problems have several origins, some genetic and others environmental.

Recent research has found genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, autism and schizophrenia, and depression and bipolar disorder.

To summarize, we can say that genetics is a heavily considered risk factor to consider for mental illness, but it's not the only one. 

The Science of The Genetics

There has long been evidence that certain mental illnesses run in families. Recent research suggests that there are hereditary characteristics that make people more susceptible to these illnesses. Variation in the CACNA1C and CACNB2 genes has been linked to an increased risk of developing the five disorders discussed previously.

Every one of us has a measurable risk of developing psychiatric illness based solely on our unique DNA sequence. It is the same as for cancer and other disorders. And, like with cancer and other ailments, our genes are simply one factor to consider. Other factors influence an individual's risk, such as how environmental factors affect the function of their genes, which can range from conditions in the womb to those in early infancy and beyond. These interactions influence the impact (if any) of genomic variants on an individual's mental health to varying degrees.

Importantly, those who have inherited DNA variants that put them at risk don't always get sick. Other variables, biologically protective and bestowing resilience, are assumed to be involved in deciding whether an individual remains healthy or develops a disease, in addition to environmental influences that interact with gene activity. The nature of these moderating elements is still a mystery.

Some of the DNA changes have been linked to an elevated risk of illness cross-diagnostic lines. Roughly half of those associated with schizophrenia have also been considered risk factors in bipolar disorder, albeit not all the shared variations have the same relevance in the two conditions. 

For example, risk factors for schizophrenia and autism are likewise similar, leading to the theory that the two illnesses share some of the same underlying biological processes. This deduction is helpful because a therapy discovered for one condition could help those with a different but genetically related diagnosis.

Protective Factors Against Developing Mental Illness

Contextual variables can help or hinder a child's development as they grow and encompass developmental competence. Psychologists refer to t them as risk and protective factors. You might already know about risk factors. However, protective factors are just as important.

Mental health is influenced by the presence or absence of numerous protective and risk factors, including a diverse combination of these factors. Identifying protective and risk variables in children and adolescents can help guide prevention and intervention methods. If mental health illnesses are present, protective and risk factors may impact the course they take, especially when you have a family history of mental illness. 

Following are some of the protective factors:

  • Physical growth and development
  • Academic success and intellectual growth
  • High sense of self-worth
  • Emotional self-control
  • Problem-solving and coping abilities 
  • In two or more of the following contexts, engagement and connections: school, with classmates, in sports, at work, religion, and culture.
  • Structure, limitations, regulations, monitoring, and predictability all provided by the person's family
  • Relationships with supportive family members 
  • Clear standards for behavior and values
  • Mentorship and assistance for the development of talents provided by one's school and college 
  • Possibilities for involvement at school and in the community
  • Positive social norms
  • Clearly stated behavioral expectations. 
  • Physical and mental well-being

These factors all come into play when developing mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. They may not matter much when it comes to developing genetic, mental illness disorders. However, these factors are essential when it comes to living a well-balanced life despite suffering from them. 

Know Your Family History 

If you or someone in your family has been treated for mental illness, it's helpful to know which therapies worked and which didn't. Just keep in mind that you are still a unique individual. There is no replacement for choosing the treatment that is right for you.

Knowing your family history might also assist you in making better lifestyle selections. If you have a family history of addiction, for example, it's usually a good idea to be cautious about your drug and alcohol use. For example, if you have a family history of schizophrenia, there is quite a lot of evidence that marijuana usage can cause psychosis.

The good news is that genetic links to mental illness can help you understand your symptoms, get a faster diagnosis, and learn more about your family history. When you're still unsure about your diagnosis or worry that you're fooling yourself or making things up, the overwhelming evidence that certain conditions can be passed down might save you time.

In fact, getting your diagnosis may help you better appreciate a family member who was never officially diagnosed but had a mental disease that you suspected. Knowing that the origins and triggers of mental illness are beyond your control can help you accept it and move forward with treatment.

The causes of mental disease are still a work in progress for us. But, in the last few years, we've made significant progress, and every new piece of knowledge we discover helps us strive toward more effective treatments and more stable and meaningful lives.


All things considered, you cannot wholly chalk down mental illness or issues to your genes. It is crucial to remain informed about all risk and protective factors that can help you navigate this stressful diagnostic journey. Mental illness is not a generational "curse," no matter how unfortunate it may be. Many people live entire and happy lives despite suffering from some disorder. However, we recommend that you get a complete checkup of your family's history of mental illness. It can only help you in the long run. 

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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