The Role of Genetics in Mental Health: What We Know So Far

June 20, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Just like physical illness, mental illness is caused by a complex combination of factors, including early childhood trauma, neurobiology, environment, stress, lifestyle habits – and genetics. Although researchers are still studying how, exactly, genetics comes into play when it comes to mental illness, they have found many, if not most, mental health conditions do appear to be at least partially caused by genetics.

This doesn’t mean your life is doomed if you have close relatives who live with mental illness. First of all, the risk of developing a mental illness remains low, even if you are genetically at a higher risk. You can also take active steps to strengthen your resilience against stress and improve your mental health.

The research says genetics plays a role in mental health, and this has implications for you.

Are mental health issues genetic?

Research indicates, yes, there is likely a genetic component to several different mental health disorders. But we don’t yet fully understand how, exactly, genes impact mental illness risk[1].

From the research that’s been conducted so far, we know some mental health conditions appear to have a higher genetic component than others. However, researchers are still learning how genes pass these conditions on.

But no mental health condition is 100% genetic, meaning genes are far from the only thing that contributes to mental illness risk. It’s generally understood mental illnesses are caused by a complex combination of environmental, biological, psychological, and genetic factors.

Genetics vs. family history

It’s worth noting even though many mental health conditions seem to be “passed down” from parents to their children – for example, you’re more likely to have depression if you have a parent with depression – this doesn’t necessarily prove a genetic link.

There are many ways family history can increase your risk of mental health problems regardless of genetics. For example, if you were raised by a parent with severe anxiety, they may have modeled some of this behavior, leading you to feel anxious. If your parent had PTSD from early childhood abuse, then they may have never been taught how to build healthy relationships, inadvertently passing trauma down to you.

The risk of mental illness can get “passed down” in a variety of ways, not just through genes.

Which mental health disorders have the highest link to genetics?

Researchers have identified a few mental health conditions with a higher genetic component than others. These are:

  1. Schizophrenia
  2. Bipolar disorder
  3. Autism

Other mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety, may also have a genetic component, but environmental factors (like early childhood trauma) play a much more significant role.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a brain disease that causes people to experience psychosis, or seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t connected to reality. Researchers have found strong genetic components to schizophrenia and estimate the heritability to be around 60 to 80%[2].

To clarify, this does not mean a genetic link makes you 80% likely to develop schizophrenia (or any other condition). It simply means whatever risk you have, up to 80% could be from genetic factors (while 20% could be attributed to different things, like the environment).

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes extreme mood swings, from periods of ecstasy and impulsivity (mania) to depressive episodes. Research estimates between 60 to 80% of the risk of developing bipolar disorder could be genetic[3]. However, bipolar disorder is a complex condition, and the environment plays a prominent role in its development as well.

Recently, researchers identified the first gene – AKAP11 – with a solid link to bipolar disorder risk[4].

Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, not a mental illness. But we’re mentioning it here as it’s a condition with a known genetic risk; research estimates the heritability of autism to be anywhere between 40 and 80%[5]. However, the genetics of autism are complex and likely involve the interplay between several different genes. Researchers are still learning more about how genetics and autism are connected.

How to determine your genetic risk

There’s currently no genetic test available to help you determine if you have the specific gene combinations that heighten your risk for certain mental health disorders.

Most people rely on family history to determine whether they might be at risk. Look at your biological parents, siblings (especially twins), and second-degree relatives like aunts and uncles. Do they live with any mental health conditions, especially the ones listed above? If so, you may have inherited genes that put you at higher risk for developing those conditions.

Keep in mind even if you are at higher genetic risk, your overall risk of developing a mental health disorder remains low. Having a genetic risk for a mental health condition doesn’t mean you’re more likely to develop the condition than not – it just means you may be more likely to develop it than others who don’t have the genetic risk.

How to increase resilience and reduce your risk

Even if you do have a high genetic risk of developing a specific mental health condition, it’s far from a 100% guarantee you’ll get it. There are so many factors, including both risk and protective factors, at play when it comes to mental health. No mental health condition exists, with a 100% risk of being passed down genetically.

There may be nothing you can do about the genes you inherited, but so many things are still in your power. Lifestyle changes can increase your resilience against developing mental health issues, even when there’s a heightened genetic risk. Leading a healthy lifestyle can also set you up to be better able to cope with mental illness if it does start affecting you.

Here are some tips to help you take care of your mental health, whether you are genetically predisposed to developing a mental illness or not.

Connect with others

Social connection is one of the top protective factors for building good mental health. Creating a solid network of people you feel you can trust and count on can both prevent mental health from getting worse and help you cope if you already live with a mental illness. Social connection also has numerous benefits for your physical health.

If you feel lonely, prioritizing social connections is one of the best ways to protect yourself against mental illness. Start by strengthening the relationships you already have, like ones with relatives or coworkers. If you don’t have relationships, try connecting with people through online affinity groups, classes, or support groups.

A trusted therapist can also provide you with necessary social and emotional support.

Use drugs and alcohol in moderation, if at all.

Not only can drug and alcohol use lead to addiction, but it’s also been shown to heighten the risk of developing mental health conditions. For example, people who misuse drugs and alcohol are at higher risk of having depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders, and more[6][7].

Be mindful of your drug and alcohol use, especially if you have a family history of substance use disorder – you may have a heightened risk. Up to 60% of the risk of substance disorders could come from genetics[8].

Learn how to manage stress

High chronic stress significantly raises your risk of developing a mental illness, even if you don’t have the genetic risk. Especially if you’re already genetically predisposed, it’s critical to find ways to manage your stress in healthy and effective ways. It’s not about removing stressful situations from your life altogether – for most of us, this would be impossible – it’s more about learning how to bounce back from stressful events and keep overall stress levels down.

See a therapist

You don’t need to wait until you’re having a mental health crisis to start seeing a therapist. By working with a therapist now, you can equip yourself with the tools you need to be resilient against mental health problems if they arise. A therapist can also help you navigate the experience of learning you may have a higher risk of mental illness and provide a safe space to explore painful emotions.

Best mental health treatment in Washington state

At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we understand the nuances and complexities of mental illness. What may have led to mental health problems for you are not the same as what caused them for someone else. That’s why it’s so essential for mental health treatment to see the whole of you and not just your disorder.

We Treat Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Trauma, PTSD, Addiction & OCD

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At The Center, we use a unique Whole-Person Care approach to mental health treatment. We see you for who you are and strive to treat the full individual—including mental, physical, nutritional, social, and spiritual health—instead of just your symptoms.

Regardless of your genetic risk, you can beat mental illness. Contact our admissions team for more information about our unique programs and intake process.

1 – https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/looking-at-my-genes
2 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095927321001006
3 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966627/
4 – https://www.broadinstitute.org/news/researchers-find-first-strong-genetic-risk-factor-bipolar-disorder
5 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3513682/
6 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7442038/
7 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851027
8 – https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/why-there-comorbidity-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illnesses

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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