For many people who live with a mental illness, cracking the code of why their brains work the way that they do feels like the key to becoming well. Diving into personal history is often one aspect of mental health treatment, and for good reason: multiple studies demonstrate that mental illnesses tend to run in families. For example, according to one study, you’re two to three time more likely to have depression if a first-degree family member, such as a sibling or parent, has depression.
While scientists and counselors widely recognize this trend, the “why” is hotly debated. Does a person develop a condition such as anxiety because their parent had anxiety and modeled certain behaviors? Or is it because they share genes that impact how their brains perceive the world around them? Would that person still develop a mental illness if their environment was different?
The Complex Interplay of Nature and Nurture in Mental Health
To understand the nature versus nurture concept, it’s helpful to first define the terms.
- Nature refers to our genes and the hereditary factors that we’re born with. These factors influence how our personalities form as well as how we engage with the world around us. It accounts for the reason that multiple people may be born into the same household but have vastly different personalities, motivations, belief systems and perspectives. We can think of these as internal factors.
- Nurture refers to the environmental influences on someone’s development and the feedback they get from authority figures and peers. Parenting philosophies and expectations, socioeconomics and the culture in which someone is raised all fall under this category. We can think of these as external factors.
While its clear that both internal and external factors influence someone’s mental health, researchers are far from agreeing on which factors have a more significant role when it comes to mental illness. In biopsychology, researchers emphasize nature by focusing on how neurotransmitters affect a person’s behavior. On the other hand, in social psychology, researchers focus on external factors such as peer pressure and childhood experiences affect behavior.
When it comes to mental illness, one could make an argument for either nature or nurture, depending on the case. Some causes of mental illness result from nature—chemical imbalances or changes in the brain that affect how someone thinks and feels. For other people, the circumstances around them contribute to developing a mental illness. In fact, two people can have the same diagnosis, but for one person, the culprit is biological and for the other, it’s environmental.
Understanding Genetic Influences on Mental Health
Just as your genes can impact how likely you are to develop health conditions such as high cholesterol or cancer, they can affect your odds of developing certain mental health conditions. Recent research suggests that mental health disorders occur when thousands of genetic variants act together.
Most of these variants occur in everyone, meaning that every person has a genetic predisposition toward any given mental health disorder. Other variants are relatively rare but make an individual significantly more likely to develop a disorder. According the several large-scale genetic studies, the number of common and uncommon genetic variants in increasing, which may partially account for the increase in mental illnesses.
According to Francis J. McMahon, M.D., chief of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Human Genetics Branch, major mental health disorders share genetic roots, but the illnesses manifest differently in different people. McMahon suggests that this may have to do with the instructions a person’s DNA provides for building and maintaining cells.
Once clinical study observed a strong genetic influence on whether an individual developed anxiety or depression in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Additionally, there’s evidence of a genetic component in conditions such as eating disorders, pathological gambling and generalized anxiety disorders.
Environmental Factors and Their Impact on Family Mental Health
Apart from genetics, a person’s environment has a significant impact on their mental health. Identifying the factors that positively or negatively affect mental health can help someone recognize whether they can make changes that support their well-being.
There are a variety of environmental factors that influence mental health, including:
- Sensory: An environment with harsh lighting and loud noises can cause the individual to feel agitated and stressed, while an environment with low light, small spaces and uncomfortable temperatures can result in a lack of motivation.
- People: The people you’re around on a regular basis—your spouse, parents, children, roommates and coworkers—have a significant impact on your mental health. Healthy relationships with clear boundaries and effective communication promote a strong support system that can help you weather stressors. On the other hand, ongoing conflict, inconsistent communication and unhealthy dynamics can be stressful to navigate.
- Aesthetics: Cluttered, dirty spaces can heighten feelings of depression and anxiety, while tidy, easy-to-navigate spaces can create a sense of calm. This is particularly true for women, with one study showing that women who lived in environments that they perceived as cluttered consistently had higher cortisol levels than women who didn’t feel cluttered.
Mental Health and Family Dynamics
For many people, family offers an unwavering support system that provides emotional support and stability. For others, unhealthy family dynamics are a prime source of stress that can ultimately take a toll on their mental health.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Pyschiatry, children who don’t have supportive families or are growing up in abusive situations are comparatively likely to develop mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. Similarly, adults who live with spousal abuse have higher tendencies toward mental illness.
While there’s a clear connection between abuse and mental illness, someone who grew up in a loving environment may be more vulnerable to developing a mental illness if a parent lived with one. It’s undeniable that conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder have strong genetic components. However, there may be cases in which a parent with a mental illness models certain behaviors and ways of looking at the world. These behaviors become normalized for their child and often internalized, and in many cases, the child eventually receives the same diagnosis.
Promoting Resilience and Wellbeing in Family Dynamics
Just as the family unit can contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness, it can also help the individual build the resilience they need to face life’s challenges. There are several characteristics that families can focus on to build resilience and support the mental health of their members.
- Communication: A lot of conflicts arise when communication is unclear and inconsistent. Families can promote resilience by having a standing policy against indirect or passive-aggressive communication. Especially during the conflicts that inevitably arise, communicating clearly and with sincerity can prevent misunderstandings and bring about quicker resolutions.
- Organization and flexibility: Consistency and predictability bring peace and reduce stress. However, life is always changing, making it necessary to balance consistency and flexibility. Learning to adapt to changes in schedules, routines and needs can help family members build resiliency.
- Values and belief system: A family’s belief system and set of values are also key to its resilience. Having an optimistic outlook and being able to make sense of difficult experiences and circumstances gives members the tools they need to navigate challenges, supporting their mental health through stressful situations.
When it comes to treating mental illnesses, understanding the underlying factors is key to getting effective treatment. Two people may be diagnosed with a condition such as depression, but the root causes of the mental illness may be vastly different, requiring different treatment plans. At Restore Mental Health, our mental health professionals create tailored treatments to successfully address mental illnesses. To learn about our programs, contact us today.