Isn’t it All About Parenting and Environment?

By: Chris Anderson Psy.D.

There is a long history that has been examining the importance of parenting and environment on the long-term impact on mental health and general success in life. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to posit his theories on very early childhood developmental stages and the child’s ability to successfully navigate these challenges. Subsequently, science and researchers have spent decades analyzing and studying the impact of parenting, trauma, and various other environmental factors and have conclusively shown that there can be direct causal links to mental health and other outcome measures.

There is also an inherent appeal to these studies because they relate to similar events in our own lives and conceptualize how difficult life circumstances could contribute to later struggles such as mental health issues. Genetics on the other hand is a new focus of study beginning in the 1950’s but only recently with the advent of new technologies is it gaining not just real traction but possible applications. Genetics is difficult for most people to wrap their minds around and they do not lend themselves to visible and tangible study since most of it is microscopic. Consequently, most people are inclined to overestimate the importance and impact of environment over genetics. For instance, many people would be more inclined to conclude that a person who grew up with parents who divorced may struggle with anxiety or depression from this experience rather than what may have been a strong genetic predisposition toward depression and anxiety. There is a fair amount of research suggesting that family environment plays a relatively small role in outcomes on a number of characteristics and psychological traits.

Genetics: A Greater Understanding of Mental Illness

Dr. Thomas Bouchard Jr from the University of Minnesota conducted extensive research and studies in 1979 on identical twins, who share 100% of the same genetics, but who were split at birth. This was a fairly common practice in the 1930-1950’s when it was thought that it would harder to adopt out two children instead of one. This scenario provided the perfect natural circumstances to examine the impact of two different environments on two genetically identical children. Dr. Bouchard was able to work with dozens of twins and evaluate the differences and similarities between the two on countless variables. They were able to estimate the relative influence of genetics and environment on many variables. Many physical attributes such as height, weight, eye color and medical conditions were heavily influenced by genetics, but surprisingly there were a variety of other attributes that were also significantly influenced by genetics such as introversion or extroversion, intelligence, and risk for mental health issues.

How Much Do Genetics Determine Mental Health?

Growing research that started with Dr. Bouchard’s work has come to provide us with reasonable estimates on the degree of genetic influence on various mental health issues. Some mental health conditions are much more organic in nature, meaning they are largely driven by genetics and chemistry. For example, studies show that genetics determines about 75% of the probability of developing schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Problems with alcohol and drug dependence and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa can be determined by 50-60% of genetic influence. More common issues like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD have a stronger environmental influence but studies still find between 20-45% of the development of these issues still come from genetics. Most people are surprised to learn that genetics can play such a significant role and also need to realize the treatment approaches are also determined in part by the source of variable driving it.

Genome Editing – The Future of Psychology?

In the last 50-75 years there has been growing respect and appreciation for the need to try to combat chemical imbalances in the brain. Schizophrenia when appropriately treated with anti-psychotic medications resulted in phenomenal improvements going back to the 1950’s which lead to mass de-institutionalization of patients who were able to leave state hospitals and attempt to live normal lives. Improvements in psychotropic medications have been a long standing tool to help combat biochemical imbalances and genetic impact with many mental health disorders. New research technologies are working toward the deliberate editing of organism’s genome. A gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 allows efficient targeting of specific genes in a cell that may be able to eliminate disease causing mutations and problems. It may come to pass in the not too distant future where such editing may be able to be employed to mitigate the risk of developing certain mental health issues.

If you are struggling with mental health issues and would like to learn more about the most effective ways to treat it, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule an appointment with one of our providers for a more thorough assessment.  Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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