Are mental disorders genetic? How much do genetics factor into the likelihood of a teen developing a mental health disorder? Research makes it clear that teens who have a parent or sibling with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental health conditions are at a higher risk of developing the same or a related disorder. In fact, they are twice as likely to develop a mental health condition as their peers who don’t have a family history of mental illness.
Is there anything that can be done to change the odds and support healthy teen mental health? Absolutely. Genetics are only half the picture.
Environmental and Genetic Factors Contribute to Mental Health
When a teen’s parent or other close family member has a mental health diagnosis, genetics alone predict that they have a 50 percent chance of developing the same or a related mental illness, according to a 2019 study. These are sobering odds for families where there is mental illness in the family unit.
Genetics is clearly not the only factor, however—there are environmental factors as well. Both nature and nurture are instrumental in whether or not an individual will develop a mental health condition. And because we have more control over environmental factors than genetics, there are ways to take proactive measures to avoid triggering a genetic predisposition.
Factors That Increase the Odds of Teen Mental Health Issues
The odds increase beyond 50 percent when there is an unhealthy environment in the home, typically caused by a family member’s mental health condition. These circumstances cause stress and trauma, interfering with social and emotional health and development. Some of the direct factors that increase the odds that a child or teen will suffer from mental health challenges include:
- Parenting that is impaired by mental illness
- Parentification of children who take care of mentally ill parents
- Violence, abuse, or neglect in the home
- Relational trauma resulting from a lack of authentic connection with family members.
When children are exposed to these difficult experiences, their chances of developing a mental health condition increase significantly. And the younger the child is when exposed to mental illness in the family home, the greater the vulnerability. Moreover, this vulnerability continues into adulthood. A 2020 study found that 50 percent of children and adolescents with psychiatric problems continue to experience mental health disorders as adults.
“Parents and caregivers whose behavior creates relational trauma don’t do so knowingly or intentionally. In almost all cases, their emotional abandonment or overreliance on the child is a result of their own untreated relational trauma. In this way, the cycle can continue through generations.”
—Heather Senior Monroe, Newport Academy Senior Clinician
Interventions to Support Mental Health
However, by being proactive, families can increase their children’s odds of good mental health, despite genetic predisposition. One study found that positive family interventions reduced children’s risk of developing mental illness by 40 percent.
The most important intervention is for the family member with mental illness to receive effective treatment, with the least possible negative impact on the child. Family therapy may be warranted to repair disruption in the family system as a result of mental illness. Moreover, having at least one parent who provides consistent connection, safety, and stability can make a significant positive difference in a child or teen’s mental health. In households with a single care provider, having a support system of extended family, friends, or others can also be enormously helpful for children.
In addition, education about mental health can help decrease the odds that a child develops their own psychological challenges. When children understand what is happening to their family member and why—at an age-appropriate level—they are better prepared to cope with their loved one’s behavior or even hospitalizations.
Beating the Odds
The genetic factors in mental health are eye-opening. Having a one-in-two chance of developing a mental health issue can be overwhelming to think about. However, research shows that the genetic odds are not set in stone. When families take control of the environmental factors, get kids the support they need, and help them develop healthy coping mechanisms, children have a better chance of thriving in the teen years. If you are concerned that your teen is showing signs of a genetic mental disorder, reach out to Newport Academy and our treatment specialists can assist you.
JAMA Psychiatry. 2020 Jul;77(7):715–728.
Front Psychiatry. 2018; 9: 728.
J Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Jan; 51(1):8–17.e8.