Genetic Explanations

How much does an abusive upbringing effect our future mental health?

As ministers consider introducing a ‘Cinderella law’ to outlaw emotional cruelty to children, Collette Elliott publishes her book Unforgivable.  In this autobiography she blames the experiences of her horrific upbringing at the hands of her violent, heartless mother as the cause of her own mental health problems in later life.

We must be careful when making “cause and effect” assumptions regarding emotional abuse.

It is easy to link a child who was emotionally abused by a parent or close relative with consequent emotional problems and depression in adulthood.  It seems very intuitive to make the cause-and-effect link.

However, as is often the case in science, it will probably be more complicated than this.  We must first show that the link is not genetic.  A parent that emotionally abuses their children is likely to have many emotional problems themselves – including schizophrenia and depression.  It is just as likely that the child inherited the genes for emotional problems, including schizophrenia and depression.  As is so often proven with identical twin / adoption studies, our environment plays a smaller role in creating who and what we are than we assume.   For example about 50% of the cause of severe depression is known to be genetically inherited, regardless of environment.  Genes aren’t everything but they are at least as important as environment.

A Cinderella law preventing emotional abuse of children is a good idea, but we must manage our expectations as to how much this will reduce mental health problems of children later in life.

References:

Major Depression and Genetics

Genetic link for depression found

Shared genes link depression, schizophrenia, and three other mental illnesses

Twins Early Development Study 

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