As a parent, you want what is best for your child. If you are a parent living with a mental health condition, you may worry that your child will also experience mental illness during their lifetime. While it is possible to pass genetic risk factors for mental health disorders on to your child, the reality is that mental illness typically results from a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Furthermore, if your child does develop a mental health disorder, there are services available,as well as steps you can take to support them. Below, learn all about mental health and genetics, as well as what you can do to ensure the best future for your child.
What The Research Says About Genetics And Mental Health
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental health disorders are caused by a combination of environmental, psychological, biological, and genetic factors. It is not one single factor that leads to the development of a mental health disorder, but rather a combination of factors. That being said, the NIMH reports that mental health conditions do tend to run in families, so having a relative with a mental health disorder could place your child at risk. If a relative has a mental health condition, that doesn’t mean that your child is sure to develop one, but knowing they are at risk can be helpful, because then you know you need to take steps to promote their mental wellness.
Based upon the link between family history and mental illness, researchers have conducted numerous studies to evaluate if genes contribute to the development of mental health disorders. It turns out that the genetic risk is higher for some mental health disorders versus others. For instance, studies have found that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are 70 to 80% the result of genetic factors, and autism and ADHD are 60 to 90% explained by genetics. For anxiety and depression, the genetic contribution is slightly lower, at 40%.
A report from the National Institutes of Health reveals that research has found that there are genetic variations that are linked to five different mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression. More specifically, variations in genes that help calcium pass into neurons can increase the risk of all five conditions. Calcium genes are thought to affect brain centers that control thinking, memory, attention, and emotion. What can be concluded from this research is that the same genetic risk factors can lead to a variety of different mental health diagnoses, so there may be shared genetic markers that contribute to psychiatric illness in general.
In summary, there are genetic variations that can increase a person’s risk of developing a mental health condition, but each individual variation only contributes a small amount to a person’s risk of mental illness. Multiple genes are linked to mental health conditions, and because there is not one single gene that explains mental illness, it is impossible to predict who will develop mental health disorders based just on genetics. Having a family history of mental illness may indicate genetic risk factors, which could be passed on to your child, but genetics is just one piece of the puzzle.
Environmental Factors Linked To Psychiatric Illnesses
Researchers seem to agree that mental health disorders develop as a result of interacting genetic and environmental risk factors. What this means is that genetics on their own often do not cause a mental health disorder. Rather, a genetic risk factor coupled with environmental factors leads to a mental health disorder. Studies have shown that the following environmental factors can contribute to mental illness among children:
- Exposure to drugs prenatally
- High stress or poor nutrition during pregnancy
- Premature birth or complications during delivery
- Social isolation
- Drug misuse
- High adversity/stressful life events
- Trauma from physical or sexual abuse
Being aware of these environmental risk factors is helpful, because you can take action to reduce or eliminate such risk factors and enhance your child’s psychological well being, even if you have a family history of mental illness.
What You Can Do For Your Child Or Teen
It’s natural to worry about passing a mental health condition to your child, especially if there is a family history or you have a mental health diagnosis yourself. Genetics can contribute to mental illness, but there are things you can do to promote mental wellness in your child, even if there is a family history.
So, what can you do to support your child’s mental health? Consider the following strategies:
- Create a positive family climate: Studies have shown that a positive family climate can reduce depression risk in children and teens. This means showing care and concern for your children, communicating to them that it’s okay to talk about feelings, and modeling empathy for them.
- Promote social support. Having social support has also been identified as a protective factor against mental illness in children. In addition to offering support to them during times of stress, talk to them about other sources of social support, such as friends or teammates. Be intentional about talking with them about their friendships and relationships with others, and look for opportunities to help them feel connected. Children need to know they have someone they can talk to when they’re upset.
- Help them develop self-efficacy. The term self-efficacy refers to the extent to which a person believes they are capable of achieving their goals and managing stress, and it plays an important role in mental health. Talk with your child about times they have been successful, and highlight their strengths, which will help them to recognize that they have the ability to be successful and overcome challenges.
- Intervene early. If you notice changes in your child’s mood or behavior, these may be indicators of a mental health condition. In young children, signs such as extreme irritability, stomach aches with no medical cause, inability to sit still, frequent fears or worries, or sleep problems can indicate that a child may benefit from mental health evaluation and treatment.
In teens, risky behavior, drug use, changes in sleep habits, lack of interest in their usual activities, withdrawing from friends and family, excessive dieting and exercising, or thoughts that others are controlling their thinking can be suggestive of mental health problems. Reaching out to a professional when you notice these symptoms connects you and your child to support early on, which reduces the likelihood that they will experience severe or lasting mental health difficulties.
For children and teens in the Southern California area, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health has locations in both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. We involve parents in the treatment process, and our adolescent program offers weekly family therapy as well as parent support groups. Contact us today to begin the admissions process.