Are Mental Health Disorders Genetic?


Are mental health disorders passed from parent to child to grandchild? If you suffer from depression are you likely to pass it along to your kids? The debate over the extent to which mental health disorders are linked to genetics has burned for more than 50 years. And supporting arguments for or against a genetic predisposition aren’t hard to come by. Just do a Google search on the topic.

The only thing that seems certain about the link between genetics and a predisposition to mental health conditions is confusion.

As Allen Frances, M.D., wrote in Psychology Today, “The intense 50-year search to figure out how heredity works has produced many hyped claims, false starts, blind alleys and failed replications. This is a confusing minefield of contradictory findings, difficult for the non-expert to interpret.”


Two examples in particular underscore the trouble. A 2013 study found that five mental health disorders—autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia—share genetic roots. Conversely, an analysis of 35,549 volunteers by a team of 86 scientists searching for a gene associated with depression proved completely fruitless. Even the study’s coauthor Henning Tiemeier, M.D., Ph.D., said: “I’m disappointed.”

So, the medical community is perplexed about the role an individual’s genes play in mental health disorders. But there’s one thing nobody argues about. The sum of genetics, lifestyles and environmental factors can be a predictor of an individual’s mental health.

Research indicates individuals living sedentary lifestyles risk developing mental health disorders. On the contrary, recent studies show exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and helps to maintain mental health as individuals age. Even taking a leisurely stroll goes a long way in improving mood.

Toxic relationships leave people feeling insecure, drained and unhappy—and have even been linked to a shorter lifespan. However, a 20-year study of individuals in healthy, mutually supportive relationships showed a reduction in risky behavior, lower illness and better emotional wellness. Anyone who’s been in a relationship can understand these inverse findings.

Unhealthy diets are also linked to compromised mental health. One study indicates excess sugar consumption is even linked to bipolar disorder. Contrast this to another study that saw participants report improvements in anxiety levels, stress and overall mental outlook after taking probiotics. Clearly, the foods individuals consume can significantly impact mental health.

And the most recent research shows poor air quality may be linked to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders and major depression. While many don’t have a choice in their exposure to poor air quality, other studies show that just spending time in nature reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Let’s emphasize this last point: just being in a natural setting can help improve mental health.

So, there’s currently no clear link between an individual’s genes and the likelihood of transmitting mental health disorders. What is clear is that living a healthy, active lifestyle free of toxic relationships and environments both improves psychological conditions and can even prevent the onset of mental illness.

Davis Behavioral Health is here to help. We have many trained, experienced, caring mental health professionals on staff. We also offer classes ranging from managing emotions to mindfulness, along with many others. We offer substance abuse support. We are your ally in improving mental health and well-being. If you’re struggling through mental health challenges, remember that seeking help is a sign of strength and self-respect, not weakness.