Is Mental Illness Something We Get From Our Ancestors?

Recently over at The Bipolar Writer Longname Blog, James wrote an article asking if mental illness were a genetic thing. After reviewing some mental health history in his family, he noted opinions that professionals have on the matter. He asked curious questions, including: “Knowing that Bipolar disorder might be something that can affect other people within my own blood makes me wary of the future. The big question becomes, could I pass this on to my own children?

His article garnered a sizeable amount of traffic. Like, 206 ‘likes.’

I, in turn, was surprised. Flabbergasted. Flummoxed, Astounded. Etc. Is this even a question? Why is it a question?

I do not wonder if mental conditions are genetic. I look at myself and see my grandfather’s anger, my mother’s nose, the potential of cancer because of a grandmother, and a few sources of depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviors.

I assume that everyone feels this way about his family that came before, but maybe he does not.

Then again, this knowledge might be due to my upbringing. I’ve mentioned before that I am LDS and was raised that way. One (of many wonderful) quirk(s) is that we really know our family history. No joke. I know who my grandparents are/were on both sides. Further, I know my grandparents’ parents. If I want to, I can go on the computer and research my grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents. I can often find a picture and who they married and where they are buried.

Sorry if I weirded anyone out. I bring up my ancestor voyeurism in speculation of its impact on my belief in heredity. Since I am perfectly comfortable knowing my progenitors and since I see similarities in features and behaviors, I therefore feel perfectly comfortable associating mental illnesses as yet another genetic trait.

True, there are some cases where Great-great-great-great Grandpa Bob may have been a little off because of those times his younger brother dropped a hobby horse on his head. Hopefully there are historical notations for aberrations like that.

Overall, however, I see serious mental illness as hereditary a trait as red hair and freckles. Or height and intelligence. Or photoptarmosis and liking black licorice.

Do you think so, too? Why or why not?



Short, sweet; here’s what I did this week:
Wednesday, April 17: Moved with history in “There is Hope in the Flame of Notre Dame.

Thursday, April 18: “The Cure for Depression: Follow a Daily Routine,” another suggestion in a series originally posted over at The Bipolar Writer Mental Health Blog.

Friday, April 19: Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

Saturday, April 20: Responded to P’Arc’s post about her pen name with “A Chelsea by Any Other Name Would Still be Sarcastic.

Sunday, April 21: Wrote “Behind the Blogger Tag Thingamajig” in answer to P’Arc’s nomination.

Monday, April 22: Re-blogged Jennie‘s story about teaching.

Tuesday, April 23: “Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-One.”

Wednesday, April 24: Today.

I also posted all this week at my motherhood site. I wrote “Raise Strong, Independent Daughters AND Mothers,” and a poem titled “Good Morning!

I received my first and last paycheck from Kids are the Worst. It was fun while it lasted and I hope they contact me again once things settle down.



Photo Credit:
Rod Long

21 thoughts on “Is Mental Illness Something We Get From Our Ancestors?


    This is from 2013 and it has to be stressed it is “may have” not absolutely conclusive. Even if it were, it would, I think, depend on which parent gene was inherited, like your mother’s hair or father’s nose, or possibly mom’s nose and dad’s hair, and whether, like some cancers, it requires an external trigger or certain experiential conditions.

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  2. I think it makes sense for mental illness to be heritable from an evolutionary standpoint. For instance, people who have a relative with schizophrenia tend to be creative, which is a benefit. So schizophrenia genes are good, as long as you don’t get the wrong gene combo. PTSD is a response to trauma – if you survived something awful once before, your mind thinks it could be beneficial to your life to remember your tactics. It gets bad when the trauma goes away and the response becomes a hindrance, but survival indicates higher probability of reproduction. Depression is a weird goon that can just go away, and I don’t know why it exists.

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  3. Yes, it’s obvious. But also the behaviors can be learned. I think the genetic part is there waiting and the actual expression of it will vary depending on environment. For example, diet can improve symptoms but not all parents will attempt to change a child’s diet.

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  4. I think it’s both, Chelsea, and although I have training in mental health, I won’t claim to have the definitive answer – people are too complex, their histories too nuanced, our brain biology still a mystery in many ways. We are born with certain genes and biological predispositions which are mitigated, exacerbated, or activated by the environment, family functioning, stress, trauma, resiliency, and a whole host of other factors. If it was simple, we would have figured it out, right? And that’s pretty cool to know so much about your history. 🙂 Thanks for the evocative question.

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  5. Genetics is a fascinating subject. No doubt we suffer from inherited traits. Likewise, we sometimes inherit positive traits like strong hearts, etc.

    Nurture, however, affects all of this too. I doubt any fallen human being is free of nasty inclinations. How we deal with them is the key.

    A physical example would be a familial weakness to Diabetes… If good parents are aware of this, they’ll be especially cautious in their children’s diets. And, as we mature, we are free to make choices on a daily basis that either provoke or shield us from the disease.

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