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Day or Question 2 in the “Questions To a Parent with Mental Illness” challenge. Set for me by one of my daughters.  I have my morning coffee all made and sat here on my desk, my pipe lit, and I think I am ready to answer today’s question…
DD 2

Well Honey, what you have asked there – given my mental illnesses – is a perfectly understandable question and actually it is a question folk have been asking for years.

I can also tell you, (and it is so important to me that you understand that I thought long and hard about this and really struggled with this before ever deciding to have children) is that it was a question which I also asked myself.

[To be absolutely honest with you, even as a young man I struggled with whether I should ever even enter into personal relationships, let alone get married.  As I didn’t want for anyone to suffer – albeit in part – from the results of my mental illnesses and the way they affected me.  Something which I still struggle with now and ever since my marriage ended.]

And the truth is pretty much that the jury is still out when it comes to the question, “Is mental illness hereditary?”.  So how about I tell you what I do know (and possibly also what I personally believe)?  And at least you will be able to get some answers from that.  And hopefully some reassurance from it also?

Currently it is believed that there are a number of different factors – biological, psychological, and environmental – which can contribute towards mental illness. And it is also believed that some mental health conditions are brought about as a result of a combination of these factors.

In terms of the biological factors – including genetics – which is what your question was.  Again there can be a number of different factors involved.  But in terms of genetics, it is certainly true that some mental illnesses sometimes seem to run in families.  And the current belief is that this is caused by abnormalities in a number of genes and not just one single gene within that family’s biological makeup.  Actually the current belief is that this is down to abnormalities in a lot of their genes and not just a few.

But I think the key things to take out of what I have just said are the fact that it is currently believed that there are a number of different factors which can contribute towards mental illness, the words “some mental illnesses” and the word “sometimes”.

Which I guess understandably reshapes your originally question and makes it “Is your (my) mental illness hereditary?”  And the most simple and honest answer to that question is that when it comes to my two main diagnoses yes it can be. 

But honey, you have to understand that whilst it can be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be.  And what you also have to bear in mind is those ‘number of factors – biological, psychological, and environmental’ that I mentioned earlier.

Just because Daddy has mental illnesses there is absolutely no guarantee that you or your siblings will or do have those mental illnesses.

We are all unique honey.  Whilst certainly we share a number of commonalities and certainly a child inherits (to some extent or another) his father’s genes, that child also shares his mother’s genes.  And who is to say – without a heck of a lot of prior medical research – whose genes (the mothers or the fathers) are going to be the most dominant?

Likewise, lets look for a moment at those psychological and environmental factors.  Honey neither of those are the same for you (or your siblings) as they were or have been for me.  And so here once again I have some comfort in the chances of you (or your siblings) inheriting my mental illnesses being reduced.

Honey, I want you to know and to understand a couple or things here…

Ever since the day you came into my life I have watched you grow and blossom and I am so very proud of you for who you have become.  I have, over the years, looked for signs in you (and in your siblings) that my mental illnesses – or even any of my behaviors and attitudes resulting from my mental illnesses – may have been inherited by you, and I am so very grateful that I don’t see it.

That is not to say that we are not alike in so many ways, because we are honey.  And that is not to say that some of my behaviors or even attitudes (some quite possibly as a result of my mental illnesses) have not impacted you or influenced you.  Because I would be a fool to believe that they haven’t. But honey, in so many ways – too many to mention – how you have responded to them, how you have processed them, how you have treated me in return has only ever gone to delight me and add to how proud I am of you for who you have become.

Baby girl – for whilst you may be much older and an adult in your own right now – you will, in some ways, always be my baby girl –  I have always tried to protect you from my mental illnesses and to offer you strength by sharing my faith with you.  I remember making the statement (in my answer to your question yesterday) “that my mental illnesses sometimes (even often) robs me of the freedom and the ability to be the me (even the Dad) that I want to or should be.  I never want for my mental illnesses to rob you of the ability or freedom to be the you (even the daughter) that you want to or should be.”

That statement is true.  But what is also true is that mental illness can affect any one of us at any time regardless of any history of mental illness being present in that person’s family.  The presence of mental illness in someone’s history whilst possibly increasing the chances o mental illness in that person by no means guarantees it.

So because mental illness can hit anyone of us at any time, I want you to try to do these things for me…

Always be kind to yourself, and to others. Always look after yourself, and others.  Always respect yourself, and others and require respect for yourself from others. Never take ownership of that which should not belong to you and never keep to yourself that which you should share.  And above all else,  no matter what happens in life, know that you are (and always will be) loved by me and by God, and have every right to be loved.

With all my heart,