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Genes and Mental Illness: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

lies, damn lies and statisticsDuring my long and narrow-eyed search to find information online regarding having a schizophrenic mother, I have often been faced with information which is a complete and utter downer. Something like this:

Hey, you know how your mother is schizophrenic? Well, guess what? That means you have more chance than other people of being schizophrenic yourself! You also have more of a chance of being depressed! And of living in poverty!

I’ve read statistics about how likely the child of a schizophrenic is to develop the same illness. It’s like Death knocking at your door. You open it and there is Death wearing a black hood, a scythe in one hand and a clipboard in the other, and he says, “Evening. Look, I know it’s a bummer about your mum having this mental illness and it has to be said: You’ve done quite well up until now, considering, but I have come to deliver you some statistical information in case you needed a bit more stress. God forbid I should make you feel there is anything positive in this.”

And then Death looks down at the clipboard and starts reeling off stuff like:

  • If you have one schizophrenic parent, a ginger beard, and were born on a Tuesday, you have a one in 20 chance of developing the very same mental illness as your mother.
  • If you have two schizophrenic parents and a stoop, your chances rocket to 4 in 20.
  • If you have one schizophrenic mother and a depressed sibling with a twitch, your chances of developing a similar mental illness are 10 percent greater than that of a man carrying two bushels of grain to the head speaker at a psychiatric convention.

Q: When you have a mother with a serious mental illness, how do you think it makes you feel to hear people talking or writing about mental illness being in your genes, about mental illness being inherited?

A: As if you were born with something curled up asleep inside you and if you move the wrong way, if you make too much noise, you’re going to wake it up. As if your future is inevitable, as if you are in some unlucky club and you can’t change it so watch out.

Adult children of mentally ill mothers may indeed end up with mental health issues themselves. But so would anyone if they had lived a life under the constant artillery fire of psychoses, social workers, sections, and chaos. We have to ask: do these issues develop from some inevitable inheritance or because children of mentally ill mothers experience an understandable reaction to the drip, drip, drip, water torture of having a mother with a long-term, serious mental illness?

Maybe the children of mothers with serious mental illness wouldn’t be prone to depression or anything else from the pick and mix list of mental health problems if they had the following:

  • People who understand that the child of a mentally ill parent believes that chaos and drama are normal. Because of this, they may not make a fuss or ask for help. So offer help without criticism and keep offering it, even if that help is just using your ears to listen.
  • An acknowledgement of just how hard and heartbreaking it is to have a mother who suffers from a serious mental illness.
  • Regular respite in the care of their mentally ill mother.
  • Some really good, honest information on whatever it is their mother is suffering from. Information that actually means something, written in real language. For example: if your mother has a clinical depression she may not notice you at all. She may sit with tears falling down her face. She is ill. She still loves you but the part of her that could show the love is disabled and shut down right now. I wish someone had said that to me years ago.
  • Understanding from friends and family. Having people who say, “and how are you?”
  • People who remember to keep asking “And how are you?” even after 10 or 15 or 20 years and don’t just think that because you’re smiling on the outside and carrying on, that you’re not buckling on the inside.
  • People who stand with them shoulder to shoulder and don’t walk away in the face of chaos.
  • Understanding from professionals. If you don’t have time to look the daughter or son of a mother with mental illness in the eye, then point them to another professional who does have the time. You really would be saving yourself a lot of trouble. Because if people who have mothers with a serious mental illness don’t get any support, they could very well end up on your client list in the future — not because of their genes, but because they are human beings, and we all know that human beings eventually stumble if they are pushed around hard enough and long enough. And they fall down hard when there are no arms to catch them.

Frustrated woman photo available from Shutterstock

Genes and Mental Illness: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Caroline Freeman-Cuerden

Caroline Freeman-Cuerden writes a regular blog for adult children of mentally ill mothers called Normal Thinking Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible.

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APA Reference
Freeman-Cuerden, C. (2018). Genes and Mental Illness: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.