Are Mental Health Conditions Genetic Like Medical Conditions?

Genetics and Mental Health
Family tree that depicts grandparents, parents, and children that inherited a mental health disorder.

What can your family history tell you about your mental health and how your condition may present?

Albert Hernandez

August 14, 2022
 Medically Reviewed by Tanya Hernandez, PMHNP-BC
Updated on: October 20, 2022
  6 min read

August 14, 2022
 Medically Reviewed by Tanya Hernandez, PMHNP-BC
Updated on: October 20, 2022
  6 min read


If you’ve been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, or anxiety, you might be wondering, “Where did this disorder come from?” You may need to look no farther than your family tree.

Often, patients who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition have a family history of that same disorder.

Although the factors that influence behavioral conditions are complex, genetics do play a role in the formation of depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Environmental factors can contribute, as well. So, if you have a parent who had depression, you are statistically more likely to have depression, as well. This can be due to genes, upbringing, or both.

When I’m talking about the hereditary component of mental health conditions with my patients in and around El Paso, TX, and other areas of the Southwest, they sometimes wonder what this information can mean for their families now. I think that knowledge is power, and openness about behavioral health disorders can help not just your generation, but potentially help your parents and your kids alike.

Family History and Mental Health

Family tree of a grandmother and grandfather that passed down mental health disorder.

Statistically, if your mom or dad has ADHD, depression, or anxiety, you have a greater chance of developing that same disorder than if you didn’t have a parent with one of these conditions. For example, if your first-degree relative, like your parent or brother or sister, has been diagnosed with major depression, you can have “a 2 or 3 times greater risk of developing depression compared with the average person (or around 20-30% instead of 10%).” This risk goes up even more if your parent or sibling experiences recurrent episodes of depression.

Studies have shown that both our genes and our environment contribute to the development of mental health disorders.

Our genes are the inherited biological material that we obtained from our biological parents. Genes determine our outward appearance such as eye color or even influence things like how tall we will be. However, it’s not genes alone that result in you being 5’ 6”; it’s just not that simple. Factors in your childhood, like what nutrients you did or didn’t consume, or what substances you or your biological mother were exposed to can also influence your height.

Similarly, the genes that your parents handed down to you affect qualities other than your height or your looks. Some genes might predispose you to develop depression, ADHD, or anxiety. Risk factors like being bullied, using marijuana as a teenager, growing up in poverty, or being mistreated can make developing depression or another disorder more likely. However, nothing in life is a guarantee. Some people can have genetic risk and one or more environmental risk factors and not develop depression or anxiety.

Not every aspect of you is determined by gene composition and gene expression. We also know that many patients display learned traits from their parents. For example, if your dad coped with his anxiety by pacing, you might be someone who paces while anxious, too. If you observed your mom becoming withdrawn and retreating to a bedroom when depression symptoms worsened, withdrawing could be a way you cope with your feelings of depression.

Treatment For Your Mental Health Disorder

If you find yourself experiencing worry, restlessness, anger, or other symptoms that are interfering with your life, it’s time to seek treatment for your symptoms. An expert behavioral health clinician will assess how your current symptoms are impacting your job, your relationships, and your overall functioning. They will also inquire about your family history of mental health disorders. Although it may take some refining to find the exact treatment that works for your anxiety, depression, or ADHD, your quality of life can greatly improve when you find the medication that works for you.

For a diagnosis of depression, you will likely be treated with antidepressant medication. If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a common course of treatment is to be prescribed an antidepressant medication to take daily plus a prescription for an emergency medication such as a benzodiazepine for breakthrough symptoms. For a patient with ADHD, a stimulant medication will likely be the most effective treatment.

Behavioral Health and the Next Generation

Sometimes my patients learn this information about behavioral health conditions and then feel bad or guilty about their children’s chances of developing ADHD, depression, or anxiety. I like to reframe this thinking. Statistics show that at any given time, around 20% to 26% of American adults are dealing with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Behavioral health conditions are very common, and they can impact our jobs, our family life, our physical health, and our economic status.

Although up to a quarter of US adults are living with a mental health disorder, less than half are actively receiving treatment.

It’s possible they don’t know what treatment is available. Or maybe they don’t think medication or therapy can positively impact their symptoms. Maybe they are unable to access the treatment they need due to financial or transportation factors. Whatever the reason, that’s a large number of people who are living with symptoms that likely could be managed.

That’s where I think the positive aspect of my patients seeking treatment for their own conditions comes in. If their child ends up inheriting ADHD or another disorder, my patients will already be on the lookout for symptoms and be able to intervene earlier. Hopefully, with early diagnosis, their children won’t have the experience that many of my patients report: of not being believed or being called lazy or scattered. Plus, as these children grow into adults, they will remember how their parents took control of their own mental health and sought out treatment for their conditions. As adults, they might experience less internalized shame about treatment for mental health. After seeing the strong example of their parents seeking treatment, these adults will have a blueprint for seeking the interventions they need to treat their ADHD, anxiety, or depression.

Do you live in El Paso, Texas, or other areas of the Southwest and need an experienced provider for depression, anxiety, or ADHD? Upper Valley Behavioral Health offers expert and friendly care. Click here to complete our application for treatment today.

Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not replace instructions from your licensed prescriber. Please consult your healthcare provider for guidance on your specific medication regimen.

Tags: mental health

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