Will I catch or inherit my parent’s mental illness?

Most children and young people worry that they may develop or ‘catch’ the same illness as their ill parent – but you cannot catch a mental illness from anyone. A mental illness is not contagious but you can have some vulnerability depending on your particular family environment and social situation.

People might say ‘it runs in families’ or talk about the genetics or genes causing the illness. First you need to know that apart from one or two extremely rare special illnesses, genes do not decide if we become mentally ill or not. In a particular family, a specific illness or similar illnesses may be found in people of different generations, but that is not caused by the genes alone, it is also because they may be living in similar environments with similar stresses.

Genes can define our basic strengths and weaknesses, but it is what happens in our lives that decides how these genes finally affect us. It’s true that we cannot decide on something like our height, although we may not reach our full height if we do not eat properly, but in terms of the brain and our minds, the genes decide more what we might be good at or find more difficult. This means that even if it is something we could be good at, we might not develop it or waste the skill, and if it’s a weakness, we can learn things to strengthen that weakness.

So if you’re worried that you might develop a mental illness because your parent has a mental illness it is important to ask ‘has your life been exactly the same as your parents?’ No, so you’re coming from a totally different starting point.

It is true that having a parent with a mental illness is a stressor which could influence or contribute to you developing a mental illness because it’s something which is happening in your early environment and current environment. But it is only one thing among many factors that might contribute to developing a mental illness.

You should remember that the chance of not developing a mental illness is much greater than the chance of developing one. This is true even if you have a parent with a mental illness.

Also, there are a number of things you can do to help protect yourself from developing a mental illness. One of these is to find out more about mental illness and understand it better.

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