Mental Health and Genetics: What you need to know

The “nature vs nurture” debate is actually not a thing anymore. Well, at least not for most scientists. The scientific community agrees that both our genetic make up (nature) and external influences, such as the way we were raised and what we have been exposed to (nurture), influence our mental health. Neither nature, nor nurture should be underestimated. For me, it was only after my children were born, that I realised that they had not been dealt the best hand, genetically speaking. Mental health issues abound in both their parents’ families.

While I cannot deny the latter, I wasn’t going to take it as a foregone conclusion that my children would experience struggles with their mental health; Especially since I had already spent much of my life, as a research psychologist, researching strategies to improve wellbeing and resilience. Watching my own children grow and develop, and educating myself as a parent, I started to reimagine the many wellbeing-enhancing strategies as they may be applicable and appropriate to various age groups.

As I mentioned in a previous post (Choose your lens) our brains are expert pattern-seekers. That which gets repeated, not only gets noticed, it actually get sought out. “The brain sees (looks for) that which is focused on, repeated or repeatedly experienced. To say it another way: What you focus on most will tint the lens through which you view the world.” As a parent, especially in those early years, I control how my child’s lens develops; I control what their little brain will focus on and look for in the world.

Credit: Kelli McClintock

This becomes a bit of an alarming statement if you consider a family where one or both parents struggle with their mental health. Not only is my child predisposed to mental illness, but now my child is also being exposed to one or more important people in their life who are struggling with their mental health. It may mean that mom is often sad or that dad gets worked up over little things and is constantly worried about being late. Active mental illness within the home has a massive impact on a child who is already genetically predisposed to developing mental health problems.

Credit: Josue Ladoo Pelegrin

So, what do you need to know? Firstly, it is of the utmost importance that the parent who is struggling with their mental health actively seeks and participates in treatment, whether this involves therapy, medications or both. An undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is bound to cause more damage to the individual and the family than one that is being proactively managed. Even just the acknowledgment that there is a problem that needs to be addressed can make an enormous difference in the atmosphere at home. Secondly, you need to know that you CAN build your child’s resilience (ability to cope and bounce back) and general wellbeing through some very simple strategies. It also has to be said that, when I say “you”, I am referring to any parent or caregiver willing to take the initiative. Just because Mom or Dad is not feeling great, does not mean that they cannot participate and be a part of their child’s developing resilience and wellbeing. In fact, involving the parent who is struggling at the time may, in many cases, be even more meaningful. The effect of the strategies I will suggest will not only have a positive impact on the child, but on everyone involved.

Lastly, it also has to be said that every child experiences good and bad times while growing up. As parents we want to shield our children from all that is sad and difficult, but this is not a realistic goal. We do the best we can, and when things get to be too much, we reach out for help – for our children and for ourselves. Support is available. Whether you are the child, the parent, the partner, the friend, the caregiver or the family member – your wellbeing matters. Please, be willing to seek support when you need it.

FindHelp – To locate a psychologist or therapist near you:

South African Depression and Anxiety Group – For emergency contact numbers and helplines:

Therapist Directory – To locate a psychologist or therapist near you:

If you’d like to set up a session with me, please feel free to WhatsApp me on 064 546 9431 or email me at

1 thought on “Mental Health and Genetics: What you need to know”

  1. Getting to the point where you KNOW you need help… that is the most difficult acknowledgment to yourself.
    Thank you for all the contacts listed.

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