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The dark side of the family legacy.

Inheriting mental illness

Maja Metera, Cardiff University

My mom once said, ‘In social situations, children are like their parents’ business cards.’ We represent their parenting abilities, wealth, and social status. It puts very nicely how we are introduced to a particular definition of heritage and legacy at a very young age. ‘You look just like your mum,’ ‘your grandfather also loved dark chocolate,’ or ‘you got your writing skills from your aunt.’ Consequently, we are taught that everything we are is a composition of traits of other people. Hence, we are the legacy. Thus, if we can ‘inherit’ skills, interests, and looks, along with the more material stuff like debts – can we inherit the mental health problems and traumatised thinking of our family members as well?


Genetics - what role do they play?

This matter can be approached from two sides - genetic and environmental. Neither of those has been widely researched yet, or at least not in terms of the most common mental illnesses such as anxiety or depressive disorder. Specialists have focused more on, for example, Huntington's disease and a familial form of Alzheimer's dementia or bipolar disorder, thus the illnesses which onset is predetermined by a patient's genetic material. For such, The Human Genome Project has been used to determine the genetic connotation of mental health problems to discover changes on chromosomes which would indicate the reason for bipolar disorder or autism spectrum. Linkage has been discovered between bipolar affective illness and genetic markers on the X chromosome. Nonetheless, the bodily changes over symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders, which are thought to result in part from a disruption in the balance of activity in the emotional centres of the brain, have not been reviewed in terms of inheriting the condition.


The most common trigger of anxiety and depressive disorders is trauma. However, the researchers started a debate on to what extent mental health is impacted by genetic predisposition and to what extent by the environment. The higher risk groups for suicide were defined as teenagers who were primary caregivers to sick relatives or whose parents were suffering from depression and alcohol or drug dependency. The quantitive research, done by Esben Agerbo, Merete Nordentoft, and Preben Bo Mortensen in 2002, showed that those young people were more likely to struggle with mental health themselves and to commit or attempt to commit suicide. 


It was also remarked that children of psychiatric hospital’s patients were more likely to be admitted to one of such facilities, especially in adolescence which was defined as the period most likely to be filled with conflicts. All of this data shows that the high-risk groups have been marked by at least one possibly traumatic experience. On top of that, given we do not live in a vacuum, it may be stated that our upbringing socialises us to be prone to such disorders like anxiety or depression and that it did not start one generation before us. As stated by Mike Wolynn, the author of ‘It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle,’ the roots go way deeper than that.


The real-life manifestation of trauma

Trauma is usually thought to be a result of something drastic, such as living through war. However, a person can be Highly Sensitive and get traumatised by something that somebody else would not be as bothered by (like witnessing a car crash). Trauma can also happen due to ongoing toxicity, so any type of abuse - emotional, financial, abandonment, or manipulation. In such cases, the nervous system gets used to never-ending stress and creates an automatic response and thought patterns. For example, you were left on-read. A person without said ‘trauma thoughts’ would think that they will get the response later. A person with a history of trauma would start to reevaluate their actions looking for their own mistake or experience a panic attack thinking that they are being rejected or that they are not good enough.


But let’s say that someone’s parent had experienced any type of trauma and they did not manage to work through it before becoming a parent. No matter their mental health – every parent’s main goal and fear at the same time is their children's safety. If somebody is anxious and/or traumatised, they will raise their kids in such a way that would socialise them to be more or overly conscious of themselves and their surroundings. In consequence, turning their offspring into the real-life manifestation of what the trauma can do to people. Additionally, since not all parents talk about their past with their immediate family – children can be convinced that their way of thinking is a product of their own mind, instead of family heritage. That is why every therapist asks about family medical history. 


Mental illness is not caused by bad parenting and is not a character weakness or flaw. It is not really anyone’s fault as parents believe they are doing what they can to provide safety for their children even when they are not around. This is how anxiety can be passed on for generations, without realising that we are constantly doubting ourselves due to inherited psychological tendencies. We inherit those types of disorders in the same way we keep social standards like warning girls not to wear short skirts to protect them from people saying that ‘they asked to be raped’ alive and prominent. They are thought by parents and grandparents to protect the offspring and keep the social order intact. 


The problem is that in both cases we try to prevent the result from happening - not the initial trigger of the situation. In this analogy worrying and second-guessing ourselves is an equivalent of blaming the victim of the sexual assault - as if in either of these situations we could do anything to stop the bad thing from happening. Wearing a longer skirt is not going to make the girl safer and getting anxious about what people think is not going to make them like us.


Social stigma

In the early 2010s, the topic of inheriting the mental illnesses had drawn a lot of attention - to the extent that employees started to consider possible tests and access to applicants’ family medical history at the earliest stage of the application process. Soon after the idea was termed an invasion of privacy and a possible base for future discrimination in the work field. Why? Because the generation which associates taking care of your basic human needs with being ‘crazy’ or ‘belonging in a nuthouse’ still has a say in forming social opinions on things. Thus, we not only can be socialised to inherit the illness itself but also the stigma that comes with it.

It leaves me thinking - why cannot we treat our minds as to any other part of our body? The government promotes prophylactic tests, general physicians collect medical history - then why only therapists ask us whether any family member had struggled with their mental health? The more we are aware of the roots of the problem, the more likely we are to fight it or prevent it. There is no way of refusing parents’ genetic material, but we can break out of the vicious cycle of trauma thought processes. It does not mean we should blame others for our problems – just that we can protect our children from suffering the way we do.

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