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How Genetics and Environment Affect Mental Health

Digging Into The Roots of Mental Illness

Genetics vs Environment As Predictor of Mental Health

By Chelsea Dunning

Is mental illness a genetic condition passed down through family lines or is it a condition developed over time, influenced by life experiences and traumatic events?

It’s Not That Simple…

Actually, both genetic and environmental factors can influence the emergence of, or predisposition to, developing a mental illness. A person born into a family with history of mental illness in ancestors or living family members can increase the chances of that person developing mental illness themselves, often paralleling diagnoses found in other family members. Mental illness may develop and symptoms may become present in childhood, adolescence or even as late as adulthood.

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Environmental Factors In Mental Illness

Environmental, or psychological, factors that may trigger mental illness or symptoms can include a number of events that happen in a person’s life. People who experience later onset of mental illness may have experienced environmental factors that influenced the development of their symptoms and diagnosis.

One type of environmental factor is illness or infections that may cause brain damage, leading to development of mental illness. Trauma to the brain can also influence the onset of mental illness in a person who previously had no symptoms.

Emotional trauma, such as sexual assault, abuse, or witnessing violence, injury or death can also be considered an environmental influence in developing mental illness. Infections, illness and injury experienced in-utero can also have a lasting effect on mental illness, leading to development prenatally in a fetus that may have grown up to be symptom free in any other case.

One of the most common environmental factors influencing the development of mental illness is drug and alcohol use. Long-term and frequent alcohol and drug use can alter brain chemistry and change the way the mind functions and responds to stimuli, changing a person’s behavior and functioning. Sometimes, determining if alcohol or drug use influenced mental illness in a person can be difficult because mental illness can also affect substance abuse and it is important to find the condition that was present first, determining which influenced which.

Genetic Factors Influencing Mental Illness

While family history of mental illness may increase someone’s chances of developing mental illness sometime in their lifetime, it is not a guarantee. However, if environmental factors of mental illness come into play, it will increase that person’s chance of developing mental illness even more, with two factors working together.

A person who has a history of mental illness in their family who also experiences high levels of stress, poverty, abuse or neglect in childhood, or who may start recreationally using drugs or alcohol have increased chances of developing a mental illness. This is due to the higher number of environmental factors combined with genetic factors that are already present.

Some diagnoses do not develop in childhood, but are often found to have an onset in late adolescence or early adult hood. These include genetically predisposed diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It is often difficult to monitor family members that may develop symptoms of mental illness, especially if environmental factors influence the onset of symptoms.

Interestingly enough, since we know environmental factors can result in the development of mental illness, removing environmental factors may result in the mental illness going into remission. While mental illness cannot be cured, it can go into remission which means a person is living symptom-free or not experiencing symptoms they previously displayed. This is most often as a response to treatment using medication, counseling and other therapeutic practices.

Regardless of the causes of mental illness, there is still a great deal of research and education to be unearthed in regards to mental health treatment. If you are interested in learning more, or want to be a part of this crucial research, contact the schools you find on our site for more information.

Ms. Dunning has over 8 years of experience working with at-risk youth and vulnerable populations, has served as a family drug court case manager for the Oklahoma County Department of Mental Health Services and Oklahoma County Child Welfare Services, and enjoys educating the public about mental health.