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Does mental illness run in our genes? This is what a psychologist has to say

Published on:21 September 2020, 14:30pm IST
Can mental illnesses be caused due to genetics, or are they a result of all the stress we undergo in our lives? An expert tells you all.
Grace Bains
An expert provides deep insights into the genetics of mental health. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

It is only recently that mental illness is finally being discussed openly, from social media to our living rooms. However, it has, for long, been stigmatised. Most people view going to a therapist, or seeking help for their mental health a tricky terrain. For many, it also comes with a fear of social embarrassment.

Due to several such reasons, we don’t know much about mental illness. If you don’t want to acknowledge that there’s something not right, why would you spend time trying to understand it?

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Most people follow an ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude, when it comes to mental health. That’s not going to help, because pushing mental health in the backburner is already having devastating effects on the world. A report published by The Lancet claims that by 2017, 197.3 million people in India suffer from one or the other form of mental illness.

Since mental illnesses have often been brushed under the carpet, we don’t quite know what causes it. That’s exactly why we want to delve deeper into it, and understand the causes behind it. 

Here’s what research has to say
For example, a study done by researchers from Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium noted that mental health problems such as autism, ADHD, clinical depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may have common genetic risk factors. However, another research conducted by the University of Liverpool observed that traumatic life events can be the biggest cause behind anxiety and depression.

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We asked Dr Bhavna Barmi, a renowned clinical psychologist from Delhi-NCR for more clarity on the topic. 

Here’s what she has to say, “There are certain psychiatric disorders which do have a genetic basis, such as ADHD, autism, bipolar mood disorder, major depression and schizophrenia. Families with high rates of autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and schizophrenia have all been found to have rare genetic copy number variations that likely predisposes these families to the risk of these disorders. In addition, many symptoms within these disorders can overlap, which might make it difficult to distinguish amongst them. Hence, mental disorders are the result of both genetic and environmental factors. Changes in our DNA and epigenetics can contribute to these mental disorders.”

The case for pregnant women
In expectant mothers, especially those who are in their second trimester, there are certain genes associated with mental disorders that begin to show up. This plays an important role in brain development.

“But it is still difficult for doctors to determine a person’s risk of inheriting a mental disorder or passing on the disorder to their children as it is hard to pinpoint a single gene causing some disorder. One gene may influence many disorder stressors but it can’t individually cause a disorder,” she says. 

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Mental illnesses have various causes
This shows that the term ‘mental illness’ covers various types of health issues, but the need is to look at each one individually to really figure out what is the cause of your problem. There are some that have a genetic cause, while others can occur due to traumatic events that have happened in your life. 

Let’s not think of mental illness the way we treat physical health issues, There’s no ‘one size fits all approach here’, each person is unique and there could be varying causes behind what affects one’s mental health.

The only thing that matters working towards diluting the taboo around mental illness, so that people do not refrain from seeking professional help!

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Grace Bains Grace Bains

Grace is someone who likes writing enough to make a living out of it. When she isn’t writing, you will find her having chai and reading a book.