While discussing a family member with schizophrenia, guilt and blame are persistent reminders of stigma, even as relatives acknowledge genetic factors.
The same relatives often blame environmental influences such as drug abuse or a traumatic event as well, according to a new study by King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry.
Researchers were surprised by these results, as they believe this kind of talk displaces — rather than eliminates — a familial sense of guilt.
Schizophrenia is one of the most stigmatized mental disorders and is often associated with high levels of guilt, self-blame, and shame within families.
Experts have been hopeful that recent genetic and brain-based models of schizophrenia would help get rid of old theories that portrayed the family (particularly the mother) as a strong factor in developing schizophrenia.
For the first time, researchers in this study analyzed how relatives of people with schizophrenia talk about genes to explain the presence of schizophrenia in the family. The researchers wanted to see whether “gene talk” helped alleviate parents’ self-blame, especially that of mothers.
“The study is the first piece of research to explore the complex ways in which ‘gene talk’ is used by family members of someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. It challenges the commonly expressed view that genetic accounts of mental illness will absolve family members’ sense of guilt and blame in relation to their relative’s diagnosis,” said Felicity Callard, Ph.D., visiting researcher at the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre.
“We should be far less optimistic that genetic accounts of schizophrenia will reduce family members’ guilt. It is also not clear whether family members want to embrace straightforwardly biological models of schizophrenia. All too often, the potential role of difficult family events is assumed to be taboo when discussing the causes of schizophrenia, but we found that family members are ready to have these challenging conversations,” she added.
The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 19 family members, who were not related to one another, most of whom were the parent and/or sibling of a person with schizophrenia. Investigators paid close attention to the language used by family members to see if they used genes as a way of explaining the mental health problems in their family.
Family members frequently talked about genes and typically did so to claim that mental illness extended back into earlier generations. They often interpreted periods of heavy drinking and/or difficult or unusual behavior in members of earlier generations as evidence of genetically transmitted mental illness.
Although the authors suggest that family members may talk about genetic accounts of presumed mental illness to help remove the “blame” from their own nuclear family, relatives also seemed to believe that the disorder is caused by genes interacting with other phenomena (including traumatic events in and outside the family, as well as drug-taking).
Therefore, family members continued to experience guilt and blame, because there was a sense that the family may have somehow been able to prevent these events from happening and kept their relative from developing the disease.