Genetics and Mental Illness: A Family Affair?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does mental illness run in families? What is the relationship between genetics and mental illness?

In her memoir An Unquiet Mind, Dr. Kay Jamison wondered about the relationship between genetics and mental illness. In light of her mental illness lineage (her father had it too), she considered the genetic predisposition to mental illness and if it could be diagnosed and targeted early, before symptoms appeared.

Read on to learn about the relationship between genetics and mental illness.

Genetics and Mental Illness: A Family Affair?

After leaving UCLA, Jamison became interested in the study of genetics and mental illness. Her interests were largely due to the work of Jim Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered the molecular structure of DNA. Watson started to investigate mental illness genetic predisposition, which fascinated Jamison. 

Specifically, Jamison’s scientific interest lied in the study of genetic predisposition to manic depression. She wondered whether it was possible to diagnose and target it early, before symptoms even appeared. She also wondered if the advantages would have outweighed the negatives. 

One negative aspect of understanding the genetic implications of mental illness is the reductive opinions of doctors. Jamison experienced this type of prejudice when still in Los Angeles. 

On the advice of a colleague at UCLA, Jamison went to see a new physician. The doctor examined her and asked the requisite questions. When he was finished, he asked whether she was considering having children. Jamison answered honestly that she had. With an icy tone, the doctor conveyed his disdain for her desire to have children. He felt strongly that she wouldn’t be a good mother and that the world didn’t need more people with this disorder. 

Jamison was livid and had some choice words with him before she left, but the damage was already done. She felt brutalized, stigmatized, and ashamed. The truth was, she never considered not having children because of her illness. And despite everything she’d gone through, Jamison never once regretted her birth. And she doubted that her child would.

Ethical Considerations

Jamison had other fears about the consequences of genetic knowledge. Would parents choose to abort fetuses if the gene were discovered? And what effect will this discovery have on our society in general?

These and other ethical considerations were growing in popularity within mental health research. Scientists and ethicists were making quick strides in answering some of these questions, but with each answer came more questions. 

Still, Jamison found the pace by which science was discovering more about mental health disorders encouraging. She became fascinated by brain scans that lit up certain regions during depressive and manic episodes like the Northern Lights. For Jamison, these images represented advancements in science, and scientific advancement embodied hope to uncover the relationship between genetics and mental illness.

Genetics and Mental Illness: A Family Affair?

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Here's what you'll find in our full An Unquiet Mind summary :

  • How Kay Redfield Jamison first experienced a manic episode at the age of 17
  • How her illness made Jamison buy taxidermied animals and multiple Rolexes
  • Why Jamison believes there are positives to her manic episodes

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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