Understanding Genetics and Mental Illness

For all the advances in medical science in the last century, there is one area of diagnoses and treatment that remains shrouded in mystery: mental illness. To date, there is no consensus about how such diseases are caused, how they progress, and if they can even be classified as diseases in the traditional sense. Not only has this knowledge gap contributed to failures in treatment, the void has often been filled with misinformation, harmful assumptions, and needless fear. Luckily, new research into the role of genetics in mental illness aims to fill that void with hope.

Research branches but has room to grow

Recently, the largest study ever on genetics and mental illness found significant evidence that a certain gene’s position on chromosomes contributed some risk of schizophrenia. While hailed as a breakthrough, the results were only the start. Other studies have discovered genes that overlap between some disorders. This could mean the separate symptoms overlap, or the separate disorders require redefinition to better align with the underlying genetics.

Symptom overlap can have negative effects on treatment because treatments do not overlap as well. For example, a patient who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is not treated for both; instead, psychiatrists typically establish a hierarchy of diagnoses and treat the one ranked highest at the expense of the other. 

What this means for reproduction

If certain mental disorders are found to have genetic links, does this mean they can be passed down from parent to child? The answer varies by the disease, and so far it appears some are more capable than others. In 2013, a study identified five major mental illnesses that share genetic variations on four specific chromosomes: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. Studies determined that these variations explained 17 percent to 28 percent of the risk of getting those illnesses. However, research on twins showed 81 percent heritability in schizophrenia, indicating a stronger genetic influence than previously assumed.

For someone diagnosed with schizophrenia and planning to have children, or someone whose parent or grandparent has been diagnosed, a definitive answer on whether the disease will pass onto them or their children would be a relief. Unfortunately, science on the subject isn’t anywhere near that precise. But data collection and research efforts are getting closer to answers every day.

Better treatments for a better tomorrow

Regardless of how strong a role genetics play in the development of mental illnesses, advances in the treatment of mental illness provide hope every day. At Alvarado Parkway Institute in San Diego, we’ve watched our patients learn to manage the symptoms of their illnesses and live happy productive lives. 

Although we do not yet understand the exact role that genetics plays in mental illness, we do understand that there is hope. If you or someone you love has a mental illness, we can help. We provide a wide range of treatment options, both inpatient and outpatient, and we encourage our patients to include family members in the treatment process.  

Our clinical team members are here to provide support and education for family members as well. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our programs and services, please give us a call at  619-485-1432.