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Scared to Have Children Because of Family Mental Health History

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My uncle has severe paranoid Schizophrenia. His sister may have been mentally ill – she had lifelong substance abuse/addiction problems. Their brother molested them all during childhood. Their father was an abusive alcoholic. My great uncle had two “break downs,” the second one left him “never the same again.” (No actual diagnosis.)

The other side of my family has had largely normal mental health.

On my husband’s side there are diagnosed anxiety disorders and possible bipolar disorder (Grandma who “wasn’t right,” but again no actual diagnosis. I think it was a trend in that generation…?) Grandpa was also an alcoholic and there are other instances of substance abuse.

So far, neither my husband nor I have had psychological issues that require attention. I do sometimes have migraines with neurological components and occasional mild panic attacks (those stopped after school and wedding planning, though). Husband seems to struggle with bouts of mild depression, but he manages it well and it’s never required he see anyone for it.

The thing is, I’m really REALLY afraid to ever have kids. With so much mental illness in my genes and milder-but-still-there mental illnesses in his, I feel like our kids would be doomed. I plan to see a genetic counselor, but I’m really afraid. I can’t seem to figure out what, if anything, they can do. It sounds like they just sit you down, ask your family history, and then run some numbers for a probability of your kids; risk factors. Are there no actual tests they run? Some sites say yes, some sites say no, some sites say my kids are doomed, some sites say they’ve got basically the same risk as the general public… I think I could manage anything except bipolar and schizophrenia, the latter being my primary concern. I don’t care what the internet says about managing the disease – my and my family’s first hand experience has never encountered a schizophrenic that didn’t deteriorate into oblivion.

I’m not sure what exactly I’m asking. I guess… what will a genetic counselor be able to do for me, and since I don’t expect I’ll ever get anyone’s official diagnoses — is “They Weren’t Right” even information the counselor can use?

Scared to Have Children Because of Family Mental Health History

Answered by on -

A.

It is believed that schizophrenia has a genetic component, but that does not mean that the offspring of people with schizophrenia will develop the illness. The increased risk for the offspring is slight. There are many other factors that would need to be present for schizophrenia to develop. Genetics is only part of the story.

The majority of people who develop schizophrenia have experienced trauma, often many traumas, throughout the course of their lives. Drug use is also a factor as are many other psychosocial factors including stress, head injury, and so forth.

The fact remains that there is no certainty about the causes of schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Differing theories exist, but there is no universally accepted answer. It is unlikely that you will receive a definitive answer to your question. Science, at this point in time, cannot provide those answers.

There is no guarantee that your children will not develop schizophrenia but based on the information you have provided, the probability is very low, perhaps no more so than anyone without your family history. Your fear about their developing schizophrenia should match the actual, factual probability that exists. Your fear should be minimal.

All of us should strive for psychological health. You and your husband should strive to be as psychologically healthy as you can be for your children, should you choose to have them. That means that if you or he believed that something was psychologically wrong, then the proper course of action would be to seek treatment from mental health professionals. That’s the best way to protect and preserve psychological health.

Evidence-based mental health treatments exist and are very effective. The problem isn’t treatment ineffectiveness; it’s that many people who have mental health problems don’t seek treatment for them. There are many reasons why people don’t seek treatment, but stigma is chief among them. Many people erroneously believe that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness. It is a sad fact that many people are needlessly suffering with treatable conditions.

You said that you and your family have “never encountered a schizophrenic that didn’t deteriorate into oblivion.” That is not my experience, and I’ve worked with many people with schizophrenia. Research shows that people with schizophrenia who participate in treatment can live high-quality and fulfilling lives. Elyn Saks, a UCLA psychiatrist, is one example that comes to mind. You might try reading about her story.

Your fears about having children who will develop a serious mental illness (SMI) seem to be inconsistent with the reality of the situation. Only 6% of the United States general population has an SMI (i.e. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression). You might consider counseling to help you address your fears and to align your feelings with reality. Please take care.

Scared to Have Children Because of Family Mental Health History

Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist and Assistant Professor of Social Work and Forensics with extensive experience in the field of mental health. She works in private practice with adults, adolescents and families. Kristina has worked in a large array of settings including community mental health, college counseling and university research centers.

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2018). Scared to Have Children Because of Family Mental Health History. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 11, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2016/11/17/scared-to-have-children-because-of-family-mental-health-history/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
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