Mental health disorders affect more than 25% of the population in any given year, and for a while now, scientists have understood that these disorders arise from a combination of genetic influence and environmental factors. Even early physicians made clinical observations noting the tendency of mental illnesses to run in families. Recently, several new studies have confirmed that psychiatric disorders do indeed have genetic roots. But how much can genetics be a contributing component to your mental health? Which disorders are you more susceptible to and which have no genetic correlation?
What The Current Science Says About The Role Genes Play In Mental Health
Advances in genomic research have identified hundreds of genetic variations that contribute to a range of psychiatric disorders. Recent studies published in science and medical journals such as Molecular Psychiatry, The American Journal of Psychiatry, and Cell, have confirmed that most major psychiatric disorders have a familial and heritable component. What they found was that no individual gene contributes much to the risk of a disorder; instead, hundreds of genes each have a small effect. The way it works is this: your genes are made up of segments of DNA; and any alteration in the DNA sequence produces a gene variant, which can then increase the risk for a disorder.
Specifically, scientists found that the genetic causes of different mental health disorders can range from 20% to 45% for anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and major depressive disorder; from 50% to 60% for alcohol dependence and anorexia; and from 75% and up for autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
These studies should not be inferred as an absolute that any one individual will develop a disorder. People with no family history of mental illness can be diagnosed with mental health disorders too. And even for those at higher genetic risk, environmental factors such as poverty, childhood trauma, exposure to certain toxins, substance abuse and others, also play a significant role in whether or not someone develops a disorder, or the severity of the illness.
One Example: Bipolar Disorder
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), irregularities in many genes may combine to increase a person’s chance of bipolar disorder (a disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs). More specifically, scientists can now predict the chances for getting the illness in this way: there is a one in 100 chance of developing bipolar disorder if you are in the general population; however if one of your parents has it, the chances go to 10 in 100; and if one of your siblings has it, the chances go to 13 in 100.
Remember, just having a genetic predisposition to Bipolar Disorder is not enough to trigger its development. Environmental factors must be present also. It’s also important to note that just because someone has a greater chance of the illness, doesn’t mean they will ever develop it.
Why Research The Genetics Of Mental Health?
Beyond identifying genetic risk variants, a major benefit of this research and its findings is the ability to provide new clues about the biological pathways that contribute to mental illness. Learning how mental health disorders are related at a biological level may inform how we classify and diagnose them in the future. As well, the findings may help develop new treatments that benefit multiple conditions.
While we’ve got a good start, scientists all agree that much more research into the genetics of mental health is needed. Until then, it is still recommended during initial sessions with behavioral health specialists to share your family history of mental health in order to better recognize and treat underlying conditions. If you recognize potential symptoms of a disorder, it is important to receive a proper evaluation from a qualified behavioral health specialist, most mental health disorders can be managed through a combination of therapy and/or prescription medication..
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Massachusetts General Hospital: Largest study of its kind reveals that many psychiatric disorders arise from common genes
The Journal Nature: The hidden links between mental disorders
American Journal of Psychiatry: Psychiatric Genetics Begins to Find Its Footing