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“I’ve Given My Child the Family Illness!” (1)

I often have parents come to me with tears, fears and truckloads of guilt that they have passed on a mental disorder to one or more of their children. “There’s a history of depression in my family, now I’ve passed it on to my son!” Or, “I have chronic anxiety and I can see it starting up in my little girl! It’s my fault; I’ve given it to her!”

While it is only natural to take the blame for passing on what you see as a family trait, it is not realistic to beat yourself up about it. Mental illness occurs for a number of reasons, the predominant two being for genetic and environmental reasons. You may have heard it expressed as the nature/nurture debate. No-one really knows the extent that genes govern the expression of a mental illness because it is so closely tied up with the environment that the person was raised in, and that includes random events that happen to a person that could set off depression or post-traumatic stress, for example.

All that the experts can say is that both factors play a part in the development of a mental condition. So while there may be a tendency in a family to depression or alcoholism, for example, it is still difficult to tease apart what effect genes have and what effect learning has in creating the end result.

It is possible to come from an extended family where schizophrenia and bipolar disorder occur in a higher percentage of individuals than in the general public. Yet it is also possible to be a part of that same family and to not suffer either illness. That may be for genetic reasons, i.e. that individual did not inherit the gene or genes responsible for these disorders. Alternatively, the individual may possess the gene, but the environment (that includes home, work, relationships, health, daily stressors) is such that the gene remains dormant, or not “switched on”. Just because an extended family displays a high level of any illness, be it mental or physical, does not mean that every member must inevitably suffer the family fate.

We’ll look at how to deal with this difficult situation in coming articles.


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