[Editorial note: Today I’m joined by a guest columnist, Ally Golden, who is an international best-best selling author, and frequent speaker about mental health issues.]
How mental illnesses span generations and why they don’t have to
By: Ally Golden
Nearly 1 in 5 American adults live with a mental illness. There has been much literature about how these disorders affect the sufferer’s well-being, but there is dismally little discussion of how the illness impacts those who rely on a mentally unstable parent for support, encouragement, and as a model of proper behavior. The truth is that these parents bequeath their children a legacy of emotional and social impairment that they will bring to their own parenting and interpersonal relationships.
In fact, a study published this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the children of parents with trauma in their childhood, putting them at risk for psychological and behavioral issues, were 4.2 times as likely to be diagnosed with an emotional disturbance disorder. This implies that children of mentally ill parents have a higher risk of developing mental illnesses themselves during their lifetimes.
Of course, many would attribute this increased risk to the unfortunate reality of genetic inheritance, and that is true to a certain extent. However, new research in epigenetics indicates that environmental factors during development, such as childhood trauma or neglect, can trigger genes associated with psychological disorders to be turned on. Therefore, in many cases, it is the continued cycle of trauma, stemming from parental instability, which is perpetuating mental illness across generations—not merely mechanical genetic inheritance. For this reason, having a family history of mental disorders ought to be seen as a risk factor—not a death sentence.
In recent decades, the societal perception of mental disorders has evolved greatly. No longer is mental illness stigmatized as a weakness of will nor defect in character. It is now generally accepted that psychiatric disorders are bona fide diseases. However, in many ways, we do not treat them as such. For instance, we know to quarantine a person who contracts influenza to safeguard against the spread of the virus. Yet, we do not take similar steps to prevent the spread of mental disorders through interpersonal contact, especially within the family.
By no means am I blaming mentally ill parents for their children’s mental illness, in the same way, that I would never blame a flu patient for accidentally spreading the flu. That said, it is a matter of scientific fact that psychological disorders can be spread through childhood trauma, triggering genetic propensities for a psychological disturbance. It is important that this information is broadcasted within the mental health community so that parents with psychological conditions can receive the extra support they may need to provide a stable and nurturing environment to their children.
There is no single recipe to raise a well-adjusted child, though many books have expressed this conceit. Each child is unique in their needs and struggles, requiring specialized care and attention. Children of adults with mental illnesses are every bit as unique as their peers; however, these children often share a genetic quirk that puts them at a greater risk to reify and internalize trauma in their childhood, leading to mental illness later in life. Parents must recognize these risk factors and make sure to guide their children away from people and situations that can cause a traumatic experience.
Furthermore, parents with mental disorders should be constantly vigilant for the warning signs of their own diseases beginning to manifest in their children. When caught early, most mental illnesses are quite treatable with modern medicine and therapy. These warnings signs can come in the form of changes in school performance, mood, or sleeping habits. A more exhaustive list can be found on Mental Health America’s factsheet.
Parents are the gatekeepers to the next generation. Their genetic cocktail, their life experience, and their trauma were not chosen. However, parents can choose what to do with the cards that they are dealt. They can choose how to raise their kids. Parents with mental illnesses must make the conscious effort not to repeat the mistakes of their own parents and replicate the environmental trauma that ultimately defined them and their disease. It may not have started with them—but with caution and diligence, it can certainly die with them.
Ally Golden is the author of A Good Soldier, a memoir on the emotional toll of growing up with a mentally ill parent. It is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. Ally frequently writes and speaks on the impacts of mental illness on family life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and the Atlantic. Ally is also an active volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention where she witnesses firsthand the devastating influence mental illnesses can have on the loved ones of the afflicted. To learn more about Ally, visit her website.