Woman hugging elderly mother living with genetics and mental health disorders

The Science Behind Genetics and Mental Health Disorders

Understanding the Relation Between Your Genetics and Mental Health Disorders

How genetics and mental health disorders overlap is a topic of ongoing research. There are things we know and things we’re still figuring out. There does seem to be a genetic component to some common mental health conditions, but genetic influence certainly isn’t the only factor involved, and genetic influence isn’t destiny. Still, it’s wise to understand your family history and to take proactive steps to guard your mental health if your risk appears to be higher than normal.

Genes can affect our health in a few different ways. In a genetics overview, The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine explains that the effects can be categorized as single-gene disorders, complex disorders and environmental disorders.

Single-gene disorders, also known as Mendelian disorders, are conditions caused by a single variant gene. Examples include cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Fragile X syndrome, sickle cell disease or Huntington’s disease. To date, no single gene mental health disorders have been identified.

The Complexity of Genetics and Mental Health Disorders

Complex disorders are much more common than single-gene disorders. They result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Many common disorders, such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, fall into this category. So do many mental health conditions.

People often describe the interplay of factors in complex disorders as “genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” Sometimes people replace the word “environment” with “lifestyle.”  Environmental or lifestyle triggers include drinking, smoking, drugs, exposure to chemicals, dietary factors and stress.

Complex disorders often run in families. If someone has a complex disorder, their close relatives have a higher than normal chance of having it, too. In complex disorders, the genetic factors are less direct and measurable than in a single gene condition.

The third category, environmental disorders, is comprised of infectious diseases like tuberculosis or HIV. Genetics helps determine who will or won’t become ill when exposed. As an article on the role of infection in mental illness explains, there’s been some research linking infectious diseases, specifically in childhood, to mental illness later in life. However, the research is still evolving, and how much mental illness can be considered an environmental disorder is still being determined.

Family History and Mental Health

If “genetics loads the gun,” how do you determine if yours is loaded?  In a fact sheet on genetics and mental health disorders, The National Institute of Mental Health recommends looking at your family health history.

They note that information from first-degree relatives like your parents, children or siblings is the most useful. But that information from other family members, like grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and half-siblings, can also be helpful to have. They caution that some people may not want to talk and others may have trouble remembering, but that any information you get can help you understand your potential risk.

There are various ways to organize the information you collect. One is an online tool created by the U.S. Surgeon General called “My Family Health Portrait.” It can help you keep track of your family health history and communicate it to healthcare providers.

People often wonder how helpful to look at genetics and mental health disorder risks. At some future point, it’s likely to be helpful, but currently, researchers are still sorting out which gene variations contribute to which conditions and to what degree. The NIH notes that so far, the ones that have been discovered only raise the risk by a small amount and that knowing your family history will tell you much more.

Non-genetic risk factors

Whether or not a person has a genetic predisposition to a certain mental health condition, many other factors have been identified that can increase the likelihood of developing one. These include the following.

Childhood history

Research shows a clear link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and many mental and physical health conditions. An article on the effect of childhood experiences on adult mental health notes a relationship between the number of ACEs and the likelihood of drug use, moderate to heavy drinking, depression and suicide attempts.

The original ACE study measured 10 types of trauma. These include five types of personal experiences and five related to other family members. The personal traumas are physical, verbal, and sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect. The experiences related to family members include having a parent with alcohol addiction, a history of domestic violence or one who’s missing through death, divorce or abandonment. Having a family member in jail or diagnosed with a mental illness rounds out the categories.

As one mental health coalition notes, there are certainly many other possible types of childhood trauma. No matter the form it takes, if it felt traumatic to you as a child, it probably increased your risk of experiencing consequences from it later in your life.

Socioeconomic factors

An article on how socioeconomic factors affect mental health notes that many aspects of economic disadvantage are associated with poorer mental health outcomes. These include poverty, unemployment, low income and debt. Associated situations, such as poor housing, also correlate. Effects can be seen at both a personal and community level. The authors note that economic recessions have a strong impact on a population’s mental health.


According to a study on mental health and discrimination, both lifetime and everyday discrimination are associated with poorer mental health indicators. Of the two, everyday discrimination seems to have the stronger effect. About 30% of the general population reported at least one type of major lifetime discrimination, but 45% of black older adults did. Blacks also reported higher levels of everyday discrimination.

Age discrimination can affect your mental state. A study published in the journal Social Forces found that perceived age discrimination is associated with lower levels of positive well-being and higher levels of psychological distress. The association is stronger for women than for men.

Chronic illness

Physical health can affect mental health in different ways. Sometimes disease will affect the balance and levels of nutrients and neurotransmitters in a way that affects mental functioning. Physical disorders can also lead to a lack of sleep, contributing to or worsening mental health disorders.

There’s a growing understanding that inflammation in the body and brain can contribute to depression. An article in the journal Frontiers in Immunology entitled “The Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue” notes a link between depression and increased immune activation. The immune system uses inflammation to fight injuries and infections. Antidepressant medications generally decrease inflammation, which may partly explain their effectiveness.

Physical illness can also affect mental health because of the unwelcome life changes that illness often brings. An article in the Western Journal of Medicine (WJM) entitled “Emotional Dimensions of Chronic Disease” notes that people with chronic medical conditions often need to adjust their employment, lifestyle and dreams for the future. The grief over these losses can contribute to depression and anxiety.

Mood disorders are frequently seen in people with physical illnesses. The authors note that among patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, the prevalence is between 20% and 25%. For patients with cancer or those admitted to the hospital for acute care, rates can be higher than 30%.

Yet another way that a physical illness can contribute to a mental health disorder is indirect, through the medication or treatment given for the physical ailment. The WJM article notes that, for example, steroids may affect mood.

Protecting Your Mental Health 

Learning your risk factors can increase your anxiety if you feel helpless about them. The truth, though, is that there are things you can do to help yourself. No matter what your personal risk factors may be.

A counselor quoted in an article on genetics and mental disorders tells her clients to visualize a glass jar with marbles inside. The marbles are the genetic risks they’ve inherited. Next, she asks them to imagine adding leaves, grass, pebbles and twigs. These represent environmental factors, and she notes that “We only develop mental illness if the jar overflows.’

In addition to managing the number of environmental factors added to the load, the counselor notes that jars can be enlarged by adding rings to the top. These are protective factors (which, in essence, are the opposite of risk factors). There are many things that can help metaphorically enlarge the jar.

Protective factors include things we do to help keep our bodies strong. These include things such as exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep and avoiding environmental toxins. There are also things we can do to calm ourselves, such as meditation, breathing exercises, creating music or art, and being in nature.

It’s good to have a balance between things we do alone and things we do with others. Social connection can be very powerful. Religious faith can also be helpful. A study addressing the effects of discrimination on mental health found that attendance at religious services helped to counteract the negative effects of discrimination for African Americans.

Can Mental Health Treatment Help?

Of course, counseling can be very helpful when it comes to genetics and mental health disorders. Whether you’ve developed a disorder or you’re simply trying to maintain good mental health. If you have risk factors for a condition, your counselor can help you look for warning signs. They can help you address them before becoming more problematic. They can help you identify your strengths and resources and build on them.

Unfortunately, as the Mayo Clinic notes, mental illness doesn’t generally improve without professional help. So mental health treatment programs can be very important. With help, however, mental illness is treatable, no matter whether there’s a genetic component to it or not.

Mental illness can impact every facet of your life. It’s a good idea to stop and give treating it your full attention. A residential mental health program can help you find a place of calm where you can begin to heal. When you’re separated from the stress of your daily life, you can see your situation more clearly. This includes without distractions and can determine what you can change and how to manage what you can’t. We can help you find your way. Call us at 1.844.675.1022.

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