Counseling Today, Features

Challenging the inevitability of inherited mental illness

By Lindsey Phillips August 29, 2019

With a family history that famously includes depression, addiction, eating disorders and seven suicides — including her grandfather Ernest Hemingway and her sister Margaux — actress and writer Mariel Hemingway doesn’t try to deny that mental health issues run in her family. She repeatedly shares her family history to advocate for mental health and to help others affected by mental illness feel less alone.

And, of course, they aren’t alone. Mental health issues are prevalent in many families, making it natural for some individuals to wonder or worry about the inherited risks of developing mental health problems. Take the common mental health issue of depression, for example. The Stanford University School of Medicine estimates that about 10% of people in the United States will experience major depression at some point during their lifetime. People with a family history of depression have a two to three times greater risk of developing depression than does the average person, however.

A 2014 meta-analysis of 33 studies (all published by December 2012) examined the familial health risk of severe mental illness. The results, published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, found that offspring of parents with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder had a 1 in 3 chance of developing one of those illnesses by adulthood — more than twice the risk for the control offspring of parents without severe mental illness.

Jennifer Behm, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at MindSpring Counseling and Consultation in Virginia, finds that clients who are worried about family mental health history often come to counseling already feeling defeated. These clients tend to think there is little or nothing they can do about it because it “runs in the family,” she says.

Theresa Shuck is an LPC at Baeten Counseling and Consultation Team and part of the genetics team at a community hospital in Wisconsin. She says family mental health history can be a touchy subject for many clients because of the stigma and shame associated with it. In her practice, she has noticed that individuals often do not disclose family history out of their own fear. “Then, when a younger generation person develops the illness and the family history comes out, there’s a lot of blame and anger about why the family didn’t tell them, how they would have wanted to know that, and how they could have done something about it,” she notes.

Sarra Everett, an LPC in private practice in Georgia, says she has clients whose families have kept their history of mental illness a secret to protect the family image. “So much of what feeds mental illness and takes it to an extreme is shame. Feeling like there’s something wrong with you or not knowing what is wrong with you, feeling alone and isolated,” Everett says. Talking openly and honestly about family mental health history with a counselor can serve to destigmatize mental health problems and help people stop feeling ashamed about that history, she emphasizes.

Is mental illness hereditary?

Some diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are caused by a single defective gene and are thus easily predicted by a genetic test. Mental illness, however, is not so cut and dry. A combination of genetic changes and environmental factors determines if someone will develop a disorder.

In her 2012 VISTAS article “Rogers Revisited: The Genetic Impact of the Counseling Relationship,” Behm notes that research in cellular biology has shown that about 5% of diseases are genetically determined, whereas the remaining 95% are environmentally based.

The history of the so-called “depression gene” perfectly illustrates the complexity of psychiatric genetics. In the 1990s, researchers showed that people with shorter alleles of the 5-HTTLPR (a serotonin transporter gene) had a higher chance of developing depression. However, in 2003, another study found that the effects of this gene were moderated by a gene-by-environment interaction, which means the genotype would result in depression if people were subjected to specific environmental conditions (i.e., stressful life events). More recently, two studies have disproved the statistical evidence for a relation between this genotype and depression and a gene-by-environment interaction with this genotype.

Even so, researchers keeps searching for disorders that are more likely to “run in the family.” A 2013 study by the Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium found that five major mental disorders — autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia — appear to share some common genetic risk factors.

In 2018, a Bustle article listed 10 mental health issues “that are more likely to run in families”: schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, eating disorders, postpartum depression, addictions and phobias.

Adding to the complexity, Kathryn Douthit, a professor in the counseling and human development program at the University of Rochester, points out that studies on mental disorders are done on categories such as major depression and anxiety that are often based on descriptive terms, not biological markers. The cluster of symptoms produces a “disorder” that may have multiple causes — ones not caused by the same particular genes, she explains.

Thus, thinking about mental health as being purely genetic is problematic, she says. In other words, people don’t simply “inherit” mental illness. A number of biological and environmental factors are at play in gene expression.

Regardless of the genetic link, family history does serve as an indicator of possible risk for certain mental health issues, so counselors need to ask about it. As a genetic counselor, Shuck, a member of the American Counseling Association, admits that she may handle family history intake differently. Genetic counseling, as defined by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, is “the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.” It blends education and counseling, including discussing one’s emotional reactions (e.g., guilt, shame) to the cause of an illness and strategies to improve and protect one’s mental health.

Thus, Shuck’s own interests often lead her to ask follow-up questions about family history rather than sticking to a general question about whether anyone in a client’s family struggles with a certain disorder. If, for example, she learns a client has a family history of depression, she may ask, “Who has depression, or who do you think has depression?” After the client names the family members, Shuck might say, “Tell me about your experiences with those family members. How much has their mental health gotten in the way? How aware were you of their mental health?”

These questions serve as a natural segue to discussing how some disorders have a stronger predisposition in families, so it is good to be aware and mindful of them, she explains. Discussing family history in this way helps to normalize it, she adds.   

Everett, who specializes in psychotherapy for adults who were raised by parents with mental illness, initially avoids asking too many questions. Instead, she lets the conversation unfold, and if a client mentions alcohol use, she’ll ask if any of the client’s family members drink alcohol. Inserting those questions into the discussion often opens up a productive conversation about family mental health history, she says.

Environmental factors

Mental disorders are “really not at all about genetic testing where you’re testing genes or blood samples because there are no specific genetic tests that can predict or rule out whether someone may develop mental illness,” Shuck notes. “That’s not how mental illness works.”

Shuck says that having a family history of mental illness can be thought of along the same lines as having a family history of high blood pressure or diabetes. Yes, having a family history does increase one’s risk for a particular health issue, but it is not destiny, she stresses.

For that reason, when someone with a family history of mental disorders walks into counseling, it is important to educate them that mental health is more than just biology and genetics, Shuck says. In fact, genetics, environment, lifestyle and self-care (or lack thereof) all work together to determine if someone will develop a mental disorder, she explains.

One of Shuck’s favorite visual tools to help illustrate this for clients is the mental illness jar analogy (from Holly Peay and Jehannine Austin’s How to Talk With Families About Genetics and Psychiatric Illness). Shuck tells clients to imagine a glass jar with marbles in it. The marbles represent the genes (genetic factors) they receive from both sides of their family. The marbles also represent one’s susceptibility to mental illness; some people have two marbles in their jar, while others have a few handfuls of marbles.

Next, Shuck explains how one’s lifestyle and environment also fill the jar. To illustrate this point, she has clients imagine adding leaves, grass, pebbles and twigs (representing environmental factors) until the jar is at capacity. “We only develop mental illness if the jar overflows,” she says.

Behm, an ACA member, also uses a simple analogy (from developmental biologist Bruce Lipton) to help explain this complex issue to clients. She tells clients to think of a gene as an overhead light in a room. When they walk into the room, that light (or gene) is present but inactive. They have to change their environment by walking over and flipping on a switch to activate the light.

As Everett points out, “Our experiences, drug use, traumas, these things can turn genes on, especially at a young age.” On the other hand, if someone with a pervasive family history of mental disorders had caregivers who were aware and sought help, the child could grow up to be relatively well-adjusted and healthy in terms of mental health, she says.

In utero epigenetics is another area that illustrates how environment affects our genes and mental health, Douthit notes. The Dutch Hongerwinter (hunger winter) offers an example. In 1944-1945, people living in a Nazi-occupied part of the Netherlands endured starvation and brutal cold because they were cut off from food and fuel supplies. Scientists followed a group who were in utero during this period and found that the harsh environment caused changes in gene expression that resulted in their developing physical and mental health problems across the life span. In particular, they experienced higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, schizotypal disorder and various dementias.

Why is this important to the work of counselors? If, Douthit says, counselors are aware of an environmental risk to young children, such as the altered gene expression coming from the chronic stress and trauma associated with poverty, then they can work with parents and use appropriate therapeutic techniques such as touch therapy interventions in young infants and child-parent psychotherapy to reverse the impact of the harmful
gene expression.

Behm uses the Rogerian approach of unconditional positive regard and “prizing” the client (showing clients they are worth striving for) to create a different environment for clients — one that is ripe for change.

Counseling interventions that change clients’ behaviors and thoughts long term have the potential to also change brain structure and help clients learn new ways of doing and being, Behm continues. “It’s the external factors that are making people anxious or depressed,” she says. “If you get yourself out of that situation, your experience can be different. If you can’t get yourself out of it, the way you perceive it — how you make meaning of it — makes it different in your brain.”

The hope of epigenetics

Historically, genes have been considered sovereign, but genetics don’t tell the entire story, Behm points out. For her, epigenetics is a hopeful way to approach the issue of familial mental illness.

Epigenetics contains the Greek prefix epi, which means “on top of,” “above” or “outside of.” Thus, epigenetics includes the factors outside of the genes. This term can describe a wide range of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off (evoking the prior analogy of the overhead light). Epigenetics focuses on the expression of one’s genes — what is shaped by environmental influences and life experiences such as chronic
stress or trauma.

Douthit has written and presented on the relationship between counseling and psychiatric genetics, including her 2006 article “The Convergence of Counseling and Psychiatric Genetics: An Essential Role for Counselors” in the Journal of Counseling & Development and a 2015 article on epigenetics for the “Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior” column in Counseling Today. In her chapter on the biology of marginality in the 2017 ACA book Neurocounseling: Brain-Based Clinical Approaches, she explains epigenetics as the way that aspects of the environment control how genes are expressed. Epigenetic changes can help people adapt to new and challenging environments, she adds.

This is where counseling comes in. Clients often come to counseling after they have struggled on their own for a while, Behm notes. The repetition of their reactions to their external environment has resulted in a certain neuropathway being created, she explains.

Clients are inundated with messages of diseases being genetic or heritable, but they rarely hear the counternarrative that they can make changes in their lives that will provide relief from their struggle, Behm notes. “Through consistent application of these changes, [clients] can change the structure and function of [their] brain,” she adds. This process is known as neuroplasticity.

Behm explains neuroplasticity to her clients by literally connecting the dots for them. She puts a bunch of dots on a blank piece of paper to represent neurons in the brain. Then, for simplicity, she connects two dots with a line to represent the neuropathway that develops when someone acts or thinks the same way repeatedly. She then asks, “What do you think will happen if I continue to connect these two dots over and over?” Clients acknowledge that this action will wear a hole in the paper. To which she responds, “When I create a hole, then I don’t have to look at the paper to connect the dots. I can do it automatically without looking because I have created a groove. That’s a neuropathway. That’s a habit.”

Even though clients often come in to counseling with unhealthy or undesirable habits (such as responding to an event in an anxious way), Behm provides them with hope. She explains how counseling can help them create new neuropathways, which she illustrates by connecting the original dot on the paper with a new dot.

Of course, the real process is not as simple as connecting one dot to another, but the illustration helps clients grasp that they can choose another path and establish a new way of being and doing, Behm says. The realization of this choice provides clients — including those with family histories of mental illness — a sense of freedom, hope and empowerment, she adds.

At the same time, Behm reminds clients of the power exerted by previously well-worn neuropathways and reassures them that continuing down an old pathway is normal. If that happens, she advises clients to journal about the experience, recording their thoughts and feelings about making the undesirable choice and what they wish they had done or thought differently.

“The very act of writing that out strengthens the [new] neuropathway,” she explains. “Not only did you pause and think about it … you wrote about it. That strengthened it as well.”

In addition, professional clinical counselors can help bring clients’ subconscious thoughts to consciousness. By doing this, clients can process harmful thoughts, make meaning out of the situation, and create a new narrative, Behm explains. The healthy thoughts from the new narrative can positively affect genes, she says.

Protective factors

When patients are confronted with a physical health risk such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they are typically encouraged by health professionals to adjust their behavior in response. Shuck, a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and its psychiatric disorders special interest group, approaches her clients’ increased risk of mental health problems in a similar fashion: by helping them change their behaviors.

Returning to the mental illness jar analogy, Shuck informs clients that they can increase the size of their jars by adding rings to the top so that the “contents” (the genetic and environmental factors) don’t spill over. These “rings” are protective factors that help improve one’s mental health, Shuck explains. “Sleep, exercise, social connection, psychotherapy, physical health maintenance — all of those protective factors that we have control of and we can do something about — [are] what make the jar have more capacity,” she says. “And so, it doesn’t really matter how many marbles we’re born with; it’s also important what else gets put in the jar and how many protective factors we add to it to increase the capacity.”

Techniques that involve a calming sympathetic-parasympathetic shift (as proposed by Herbert Benson, a pioneer of mind-body medicine) may also be effective, Douthit asserts. Activities such as meditation, knitting, therapeutic massage, creative arts, being in nature, and breathwork help cause this shift and calm the nervous system, she explains. Some of these techniques can involve basic behavioral changes that help clients “become aware of when [they’re] becoming agitated and to be able to recognize that and pull back from it and get engaged in things that are going to help [them] feel more baseline calm,”
she explains.

In addition, counseling can help clients relearn a better response or coping strategy for their respective environmental situations, Behm says. For example, a client might have grown up watching a parent respond to external events in an anxious way and subconsciously learned this was an appropriate response. In the safe setting of counseling, this client can learn new, healthy coping methods and, through repetition (which is one way that change happens), create new neuropathways.

At the same time, Shuck and Douthit caution counselors against implying that as long as clients do all the rights things — get appropriate sleep, maintain good hygiene, eat healthy foods, exercise, reduce stress, see a therapist, maintain a medicine regime — that they won’t struggle, won’t develop a mental disorder, or can ignore symptoms of psychosis.

“You can do all of the right things and still develop depression. It doesn’t mean that somebody’s doing something wrong. … It just means there happened to have been more marbles in the jar in the first place,” Shuck says. “It’s [about] giving people the idea that there’s some mastery over some of these factors, that they’re not just sitting helplessly waiting for their destiny to occur.”

Shuck often translates this message to other areas of health care. For example, someone with a family history of diabetes may or may not develop it eventually, but the person can engage in protective factors such as maintaining a healthy body weight and diet, going to the doctor, and getting screened to help minimize the risk. “If we normalize [mental health] and make it very much a part of what we do with our physical health, it’s really not so different,” she says.

Bridging the gap

Shuck started off her career strictly as a genetic counselor. As she made referrals for her genetics clients and those dealing with perinatal loss to see mental health therapists, however, several clients came back to her saying the psychotherapist wasn’t a good fit. Over time, this happened consistently.

This experience opened Shuck’s eyes to the existing gap between the medical and therapeutic professions for people who have chronic medical or genetic conditions. Medical training isn’t typically part of the counseling curriculum, often because there isn’t room or a need for such specialized training, she points out.

Shuck decided to become part of the solution by obtaining another master’s degree, this time in professional counseling. She now works as a genetic counselor and as a psychotherapist at separate agencies. She says some clients are drawn to her because of her science background and her knowledge of the health care setting.

Behm also notes a disconnect between genetics and counseling. “I see these two distinct pillars: One is the pillar of genetic determinism, and the other is the pillar of epigenetics. And with respect to case conceptualization and treatment, there aren’t many places where the two are communicating,” she says.

Douthit, a former biologist and immunologist, acknowledges that some genetic questions such as the life decisions related to psychiatric genetics are outside the scope of practice for professional clinical counselors. However, helping clients to change their unhealthy behaviors and though patterns, deal with family discord or their own reactions (e.g., grief, loss, anxiety) to genetically mediated diseases, and create a sympathetic-parasympathetic shift are all areas within counselors’ realm of expertise, she points out.

An interprofessional approach is also beneficial when addressing familial mental health disorders. If Behm finds herself “stuck” with a client, she will conduct motivational interviewing and then often include a referral to a medical doctor or other medical professional. For example, she points out, depression can be related to a vitamin D deficiency. She has had clients whose vitamin D levels were dangerously low, and after she referred them to a medical doctor to fix the vitamin deficiency, their therapeutic work improved as well.

Another example is the association between addiction and an amino acid deficiency. Behm notes that consulting with a physician who can test and treat this type of deficiency has been shown to reduce clients’ desires to use substances. Even though counselors are not physicians, knowing when to make physicians a part of the treatment team can help improve client outcomes,
she says. 

Another way to bridge the gap between psychotherapy and the science of genetics is to make mental health a natural part of the dialogue about one’s overall health. “Mental illness lives in the organ of the brain, but we somehow don’t equate the brain as an organ that’s of equality with our kidneys, heart or liver,” Shuck says. When there is a dysfunction in the brain, clients deserve the opportunity to make their brains work better because that is important for their overall well-being,
she asserts.

Facing one’s fears

Having a family history of mental illness may result in fear — fear of developing a disorder, fear of passing a disorder on to a child, fear of being a bad parent or spouse because of a disorder.

“Fear is paralyzing,” Shuck notes. “When people are fearful of something … they don’t talk about it and they don’t do anything about it.” The aim in counseling is to help clients move away from feeling afraid — like they’re waiting for the disorder to “happen” — to feeling more in control, she explains.

Some clients have confessed to Everett that they have doubts about whether they want or should have children for several reasons. For instance, they fear passing on a mental health disorder, had a negative childhood themselves because of a parent who suffered from an untreated disorder, or currently struggle with their own mental health. For these clients, Everett explains that having a mental health issue or a family history of mental illness doesn’t mean that they will go on to neglect or abuse their children. “With parents who have the support and are willing to be open and ask for help … [mental illness] can be a part of their life but doesn’t have to completely devastate their children or family,” she says.

Shuck reminds clients who fear that their children could inherit a mental illness that most of the factors that determine whether people develop a mental disorder are nongenetic. In addition, she tells clients their experience with their own mental health is the best tool to help their child if concerns arise because they already know what signs to look for and how to get help.

Even if a child comes from a family with a history of mental illness, the child’s environment will be different from the previous generations, so the manifestations of mental illness could be less or more severe or might not appear at all, Douthit adds.

The potential risk of mental illness may also produce anger in some clients, but as Shuck points out, this can sometimes serve as motivation. One of her clients has a family history that includes substance abuse, addiction, hoarding, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, depression and suicide. The client also experienced mental health problems and had a genetic disorder, but unlike her family, she advocated for herself. When Shuck asked her why she was different from the rest of her family, the client confessed she was angry that she had grown up with family members who wouldn’t admit that they had a mental illness and instead used unhealthy behaviors such as drinking to cope. She knew she wanted a different life for herself and her future children.

Defining their own destiny

Everett doesn’t focus too heavily on client genetics because she can’t do anything about them. Instead, her goal is to encourage clients to believe that they can change and get better themselves. She wants clients to move past their defeated positions and realize that a family history of mental illness doesn’t have to define them.

Likewise, Behm thinks counselors should instill hope and optimism into sessions and carry those things for clients until they are able to carry them for themselves. To do this, counselors should be well-versed in the science of epigenetics and unafraid of clients’ family histories, she says. Practitioners must believe that counseling can truly make a difference and should attempt to grow in their understanding of how the process can alter a client’s genes, she adds.

From the first session, Behm is building hope. She has found that activities that connect the mind and body can calm clients quickly and make them optimistic about future sessions. For example, she may have clients engage in diaphragmatic breathing and ask them what they want to take into their bodies. If their answer is a calming feeling, she tells them to imagine calm traveling into every single cell of their bodies when they breath in. Alternately, clients can imagine inhaling a color that represents calm. Next, Behm asks clients what they want to let go of — stress or anxiety, for example — and has them imagine that leaving the body as they exhale.

Hope and optimism played a large role in how Mariel Hemingway approached her family’s history of mental illness. She recognized that her history made her more vulnerable. Determined not to become another tragic story, Hemingway exerted control over her environment, thoughts and behaviors. Today, she continues to eat well, exercise, meditate and practice stress reduction.

Hemingway’s story illustrates the complexity of familial history and serves as a good model for counselors and clients, Douthit says. “Whether it’s genetic or not, it’s being passed along from generation to generation,” Douthit says. “And that could be through behaviors. It could be through other environmental issues. It could be any number of modifications that occur when genes are expressed.”

Shuck says she often hears other mental health professionals place too great an emphasis on the inheritance of mental illness. A family history of mental illness alone does not determine one’s destiny, she says. Instead, counselors and clients should focus on the things they do have control over, such as environmental factors and lifestyle.

“We have to emphasize wellness [and protective factors] much more than the idea that ‘it’s in my family, so it’s going to happen to me,’” she says. “We have to look at those things we can do as an individual to enhance those aspects of our well-being to make [the capacity of the mental illness] jar bigger.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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