“Mental Illness Runs in My Family”


Are emotional conditions like depression and bipolar disorder inherited? Well, the simple answer is, “It’s complicated.”  When you think of a “genetic” mood disorder, you might expect a precise explanation of how it is inherited; you might also expect a straightforward prediction about how likely it is you’ll experience an emotional condition that comes from your parents or runs in your family.

If mood disorders were determined by a single gene inherited from your parent(s), it would be possible to more accurately predict the likelihood of your having the same disorder during your life.  However, it appears that mood disorders are determined by several different genes – their “expression” (whether or not you will experience “clinical” depression) in your life is not a simple prediction.  To further complicate this, the environment you live in and the things that happen in your life can either protect you from, or make you vulnerable to developing an emotional disorder that runs in your family.

So what does this mean for you?
It means that if someone or several people in your family have had a mood disorder, you will have a slightly higher chance of experiencing that disorder than people who do not have a family history for the same condition.  However, since your upbringing, family situation and home environment, temperament, life experiences and environmental events make you uniquely different from everyone else in your family, you may find that the expression of an emotional disorder that runs in your family passes you by. You can see that there are many factors that influence the chance of experiencing any emotional disorder that runs in your family – some that you can’t control, some that you can.  Paying attention to the factors that you can control will help make a difference in how a family history expresses itself in your life.

Knowing your family history is important
It’s helpful and important to know about your family’s history of emotional disorders.  If you know what runs in your family, you will be able to educate yourself about the risk of experiencing the same disorder and become familiar with early signs so that you can take action if you have concerns for your own emotional well-being.  Your family history can help you make decisions about your self-care and life choices – specifically, you can go out of your way to avoid things in your life that would make it more likely for you to develop an emotional disorder that runs in your family and take steps to do things that protect you.  For instance, if alcoholism runs in your family, you might be more careful about monitoring your own drinking habits and behaviors.  And finally, if you develop an emotional disorder, knowing your family history can help health care providers understand your situation and help them make decisions about treatment, if needed.

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