February 1, 2022

The Connection Between Family History and Mental Illness

by Ilisa Kaufman, Psy.D.

A popular question people wonder about, is what causes mental illness? Is it something that people are born with? Or, do people develop it due to environmental circumstances? Interestingly, the research that has been conducted trying to determine the answer to this question, has never conclusively discovered a cause.

What is known is that there is a genetic contribution and an environmental contribution.

Genetic Factors

With regards to the role that genetics plays in the causation of mental illness, the current research finds that If you have a blood family member that has mental illness, you are more likely to develop one.

Also, the he closer the genetic link,  the more likely you are to develop the illness. For example, if your identical twin has schizophrenia you are more likely to have schizophrenia yourself; versus, if your fraternal twin has it. So, it is clear that there is a genetic component to the causation of mental illness. However, research has also been done proving that there is also an environmental component for whether or not somebody will develop a mental illness.

Environmental Factors

Depending on the environment within which a person is raised in, and depending upon what environmental triggers or situations happen to that person, it may also determine whether or not they develop a mental illness.

Twin studies have also helped researchers discover that regardless of genetics, the twin raised in the “heartier” environment was less likely to develop mental illness.

Diathesis-Stress Model

Most people within the psychology profession feel the diathesis stress model is the best way to explain what causes mental illness. According to this model, a person may be born with a genetic predisposition towards mental illness, and then, depending on the environment that they are placed in, will determine whether or not this predisposition ever becomes activated.

The coronavirus pandemic is an excellent example. Many people have developed clinical psychological disorders since the pandemic has begun. Meaning, these persons did not meet criteria for any clinical psychological conditions prior to the pandemic, but now are.

I do not believe that the environmental stress of the pandemic alone is enough to cause a clinical psychological condition within a person. However, I believe that some people had a genetic predisposition their entire life, and the environmental response to the coronavirus was enough of an environmental trigger to push those with the predisposition into a clinical psychological problem.

I have had a lot of new clients who prior to the coronavirus pandemic shut down had mild anxiety or OCD traits. Once the pandemic hit, and all the pandemic protocols were put into place, these people were pushed from subclinical into clinical. Along with some people crossing over into clinical territory, the drastic change in environment caused a increase in suicides, divorces, and substance abuse.

Final Thoughts

If you feel you are experiencing psychological symptoms, and you feel your functioning is greatly impaired, then it is very important to seek help from a qualified, licensed mental health professional. Regardless of how the mental illness was caused, treatment, help, and hope is available.


Ilisa Kaufman, Psy.D.

Ilisa Kaufman, Psy.D, is a licensed clinical Psychologist, who practices in Miami, Florida. She specializes in the treatment of OCD, addictions, and OC related disorders. After having struggled with severe OCD herself, Dr. Kaufman created a modified version of Exposure and Response therapy; which she calls RIP-R therapy. She used this therapy to get herself into recovery from OCD, and is now on a mission to help other sufferers. Dr. Kaufman has been treating OCD for 10 years now and has appeared on a multitude of media platforms discussing her treatment.

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