Is mental illness genetic?

Close-up photo of an eye, by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Genetics is one of many risk factors that can contribute to mental illness. Your genes are passed down from your parents and ancestors, and they provide the blueprint for how your body and brain develop.

Genetics is really complicated, and so is mental illness. There’s no single gene that determines for sure whether you’ll have a mental illness. (Even something as simple as the color of your eyes is determined by up to 16 different genes!) Instead there are many genes that affect the way your brain develops, and this can make you more or less likely to develop a mental illness later on.

Other factors that contribute to mental illness include your environment, your habits, and stressful or traumatic events.

Does knowing my family history help?

If members of your family have been treated for mental illness, it can be useful to know which treatments have or have not worked for them. Just remember that you are still an individual, and there’s no substitute for finding the treatment that works best for you.

Knowing your family history can also help you make better decisions about your lifestyle. For example, if addiction runs in your family, it’s probably a good idea to be careful about your own drug and alcohol use. There’s some evidence that marijuana use can trigger psychosis if you have a family history of schizophrenia.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing you can do about your genes—but you can do something about your other risk factors. You can remove yourself from toxic environments, practice healthier habits, and seek treatment and support.

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