For prospective or expecting parents, the phrase "genetic testing" can illicit all kinds of anxieties. What if I'm a carrier? What if my husband is? Should I pay out-of-pocket for a certain test? But what if anxiety itself is what you're worried about passing on to your kid? What mental health concerns are hereditary, and are there genetic tests to screen for them?
When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we nearly collapsed on the floor with relief as each genetic test came back OK. But that wasn't the end of our worrying as we then then started parsing other biological traits that we might be bringing to the table — I have a relative with bipolar disorder; my husband has a family member who's dealt with chronic depression, another with obsessive compulsive disorder. Almost our entire family tree struggles with anxiety. What were we setting our kid up for?
Studies have shown that genes do play a role in many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, the conversation gets complicated because it's often a combination of hereditary traits and environmental factors that can determine whether a mental health disorder actually presents itself, according to Mental Health America. Put simply, you might pass on the hereditary traits that make your child more prone to depression, but that doesn't mean that your child will necessarily have depression. Environmental factors like stress, trauma, and social connections, can influence whether that trait ultimately gets expressed.
If you're anything like me, these nuances didn't assuage my fears of what I might be passing on to my child. I wanted the clarity that comes with DNA sequencing and screening. Unfortunately, there aren't genetic tests for mental health conditions currently available, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
But, here's what we do know about the hereditary nature of common mental health conditions. (Note: don't let this bum you out. Remember, your genes are only one piece of a much larger, more intricate puzzle.)
1. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD has a strong family component according to a definitive study on the subject conducted at John Hopkins in 2000. The research showed that you have a 5 times greater risk of having OCD if you have a first degree relative (think: parent, brother, or sister) with the illness.
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that anxious parents are more likely to have anxious kids. By looking at nearly 600 young rhesus monkeys (our primate cousins) researchers found that monkeys—like humans—can be born with anxious temperaments and can pass their anxiety-related genes on to their offspring.
Genetic factors have been proven to play an important role in determining whether you develop major depressive disorder (MDD). A study conducted on twins suggested a heritability of 40 to 50 percent, and family studies indicate a twofold to fourfold increase in likelihood of developing MDD among first-degree relatives, according to an article published in Current Psychology Reports in 2010.
4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD)
ADHD is also has strong genetic ties. From twin and family studies published by Karger, researchers found a 60-80 percent heritable component of the disorder in children and adolescents.
5. Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia
Bipolar disorder (manic depression) and schizophrenia have both been shown to have genetic contributing factors, according to the Center for Genetic Education in Australia. If you have a family history of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, your child's risk of developing the disorder increases with the number of affected relatives and their degree of relatedness.
If all of these statistics are causing you to have your own full-blown panic attack—don't worry. Really. There may be a hereditary component to many mental health conditions, but that's just it... a component. It's not just your genes, it's how genetic factors and environmental factors interact, constantly, over time. It's your DNA plus everything else.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.