TWDS: Genetic Predisposition

By: Alexandra Beste

Often when we try to talk about mental health, the conversation falters because we lack a grasp of what causes mental health issues. Aside from psychological injury, the other main origin is genetic predisposition.

While a psychological injury encompasses any emotionally intensive experience registered as trauma by an individual, a genetic predisposition refers to a person's increased chance of developing an illness or health issue because of their genes. Such a genetic predisposition stems from genetic changes, specifically variations inherited from an individual's parents or genetic mutations.

However, being genetically predisposed to a certain health problem does not automatically mean someone will exhibit the health problem. According to the National Institutes of Health, "genetic changes contribute to the development of a disease", but different variations have different associated risk levels, and genetic predisposition can increase if a person carries multiple variations linked to the same disease.

Other aspects, key among them environmental factors and psychological injury, can impact if and how a genetic variation manifests. As a result, the age of onset for a disease can differ from childhood and adolescence to early and late adulthood.

A physical health problem can also potentially influence the development of a mental health issue. The stress of a physical detriment on the body and the mind, as well as the possible presence of additional genetic changes, may increase someone's likelihood to experience mental health challenges.

Just like someone can be born with a genetic predisposition to a physical health issue, someone can be born with a genetic predisposition for a mental illness.

Genetic predispositions for physical diseases, however, should not be confused with genetic predispositions for mental illnesses. Though they can co-occur, a genetic susceptibility towards a mental affliction can only specifically affect the brain and neurotransmitters, whereas a genetic variation related to a physical affliction, for example cardiovascular disease, can influence those or other organs and systems of the body.

A wide variety of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression have been linked to genetic variations, and further scientific research is helping us to better understand the ties between our minds and our genetic makeup. But unlike our physical health, mental health isn’t commonly talked about in our communities because of stigma.

Stigmas are generated by social and cultural factors that try to dictate how we express ourselves and makes us silent on mental health challenges. 

We need to be proactive and start the conversation our mental health before arriving at a point of crisis. By addressing the subject as early as possible, we can create communities well-equipped to respond to mental health challenges and support individuals.

This also means talking about our own mental health. "It is always important to know and understand your family's history of mental illness because you can be proactive in treatment and getting the right supports into place," Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) Jacqueline Carmody explains.

Often, stigma plays a prevalent role in defining family communication and relationships. History of mental illness is swept under the rug, and mental health problems are kept secret, generating an unhealthy environment in which people feel ashamed about a natural part of life and aren't receiving the proper treatment they need. Speaking openly about mental health and taking action early on helps to establish effective support systems and prevents issues from exacerbating.

"If a parent is aware of a particular mental illness that runs in the family, they can look for symptoms and signs early on in their child. This can help the child learn and develop effective coping skills and understand why they respond or feel differently than others. Also, family members typically have a similar response to the same treatment, therefore, if your parent had a reaction to a specific medication, you can inform your doctor of this knowledge."

To effectively help and support those struggling, we need to embrace open communication of mental health challenges. Having the conversation on our mental wellbeing can be daunting and intimidating due to the silence surrounding the topic, but we can confront and dispel stigma by realizing that mental health issues, just like physical issues, are a natural part of our lives.

The conversation should start as soon as the onset of a mental health issue is recognized, whether by the individual experiencing it, someone close to the individual, or a stranger. In any given scenario, how you can be supportive is always the same.

First and foremost, listen. Let the other person really express their experiences. Being someone they can talk to is essential when giving support.

As you're talking, it's important you abstain from judgment. Everyone's experiences are their own, everyone's pain is their own. Do not criticize or minimize the way they feel. You may not be able to understand exactly what the other person is going through, and that's ok.

You should also avoid asking "why" questions and preferably ask "what". Using "why" can have a judgmental tone, even if you don't mean it that way.

Make sure to give information - don't diagnose the other person or make assumptions about their mental health. Instead, you can generally educate them about mental health, thereby reassuring them that how they feel is valid, and provide direction to resources.

There are tools to respond, treat, and manage our mental health. Various forms of therapy and types of mental health professionals can help a person understand and cope with mental illness. Common treatments include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and counseling. Medication may also be prescribed to treat neurochemical imbalances.

However, the appropriate approach varies from person to person. As an LCPC, Ms. Carmody knows, "No one treatment is perfect for everyone. When considering the right treatment for yourself or a loved one, it is important to understand that it is a trial and error process. Working with a long-term therapist or psychiatrist should feel like a good fit and one should feel comfortable sharing their personal experience. Although it may be difficult to engage in this process at first, eventually one can learn that therapy can be cathartic and motivating."

You can find resources in your area by using the SAMHSA Locator here.

Mental health is complicated and solutions aren't overnight. Being supportive doesn’t mean your duty is to ‘fix’ someone, and it is important that you also take care of your own mental health when trying to support someone else. As a teammate, the best support you can give is by being a trusting ear, helping to navigate resources, and acting as a source of encouragement.

It's Ok Not To Be Ok. Have Hope.