Does mental illness run in families?

Sometimes there are a few people in a family who have a mental illness. But other times there is only one person. This information looks at whether mental illness runs in families. It is for people who are 18 or over and affected by mental illness in England.

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Overview

  • Some research suggests that mental illness can run in families.
  • Researchers do not fully understand what causes mental illness to run in families.
  • Mental illness may be passed on for different reasons, not just genes. 
  • Having a family member with a mental illness does not mean that you will have one too. 
  • You might be worried about mental illness running in your family. There are things you can do to look after your mental health.

Need more advice?

If you need more advice or information you can contact our Advice and Information Service.

Does mental illness run in families?

Someone in your family may have a mental illness. If so, you might be worried about developing the same condition. 

Or you might have a mental illness. And you might be worried that your children or siblings will develop the same mental illness. Or a different one.

Most people with a mental illness do not have relatives with the same condition. But research does suggest that mental illness can run in families.  

The table below shows the chances of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder being passed down through family members.  These numbers are based on specific studies. But different studies can show different numbers.

  Schizophrenia Bipolar
Lifetime chance. This is the chance of someone in the general population developing the condition during their lifetime. 1 in 100 1 in 100
If one of your biological parents has the condition 6 in 100 10 in 100
If both of your biological parents have the condition 45 in 100 40 in 100
If your brother or sister has the condition 9 in 100

13 in 100

 

If your identical twin has the condition 40-50 in 100 40 - 70 in 100
If your non-identical twin has the condition 17 in 100 20  in 100
If a second degree relative has the condition. For example, your aunt, uncle or grandparent. 3 in 100 5 in 100

It might be helpful to look at the figures in the table in a different way. For example:

  • the chance of someone developing bipolar disorder is 1 out of 100. 

This means that:

  • 99 people are not going to develop bipolar disorder.

One of your parents might have bipolar disorder. If so, the chance of you not developing the condition is 90 out of 100. This means you are still unlikely to develop bipolar disorder. 

Other research shows that other mental health conditions can run in the same family. Such as schizoaffective disorder, major depression, and anxiety.

What causes mental illness to run in families?

Researchers do not fully understand what causes mental illness to be passed on in families. 

When a condition is passed on in families through genes, it is called ‘hereditary’.   

The chances of developing a mental illness could depend on you and your relatives’ genes.

It does seem that mental illness, or some of them, could be hereditary. But researchers do not fully understand how this works. Mental illness may be passed on in family members for different reasons, not just genes.

What else might cause mental illness?

Environmental factors, like loneliness or a stressful life event, can help cause mental illness.  

Stressful things in life can include money problems, losing your job or the death of a loved one. If you have a family history of mental illness you have a higher chance of developing mental illness in these situations. 

This does not mean that you will definitely develop a mental illness. People with no family history of mental illness can develop a mental illness too.

There are different ways of looking after your mental health, which are explained more further down this page.

For more information, see our webpage on Stress – How to cope.

What should I think about if I want to start a family?

You might have a mental illness and are thinking of starting a family. You could talk to a professional genetics counsellor about this.

Genetic counsellors work directly with patients and families. They can give specialist advice and information. They give it to people who have relatives with certain health conditions. 

If you want to speak to a genetics counsellor, you will need to be referred by a doctor. So, you can speak to your GP or psychiatrist.  

You can find out more information on ‘New parents, pregnancy and mental health’ at www.rethink.org.

What can I do to reduce my risk of developing a mental illness?

Mental illness may run in families. But it does not mean that you or someone in your family will definitely become unwell. 

If you have a family history of mental illness it can still help to take good care of your mental health. 

There are things you can do to look after your mental health. Below are some steps you can take. 

Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness makes us become more aware of the present moment. It can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. 

Mindfulness can help improve mental wellbeing.  It can also help you to notice signs of stress or anxiety. And deal with them better. 

You can find out more at this link:
www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started 

Having a healthy diet 

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is good for your mental and physical health. 

If you are having issues maintaining a balanced diet, you can seek help from your GP.

You can read more at: www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well 

Getting regular exercise

Regular exercise can help to improve your mood. It can also help you to feel better about yourself and relieve stress. And helps you to get a better night’s sleep. 

You can find more information about ‘Physical activity and mental health’ at www.rethink.org

Getting enough sleep

Problems with sleep can affect how you feel physically and mentally. In turn, how you feel physically and mentally can also affect how you sleep. If you regularly have problems sleeping, then you should talk to your GP.  

You can find more information about ‘How can I improve my sleep’ at www.rethink.org

Drug and alcohol use

It can help to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. These tips might help: www.healthieryou.org.uk/how-to-have-a-healthy-relationship-with-alcohol 

Drugs and alcohol can make the symptoms of your mental illness worse. And Some people use them to try and deal with their symptoms of their mental illness.

Speak to your GP if you are worried about your drug or alcohol use. 

For more information, see our webpage on Drugs, alcohol and mental health.

Avoiding smoking or cutting down

It can help to avoid smoking or cut down. 

You can find more information about ‘Smoking and mental health’ at www.rethink.org.

Connecting with others  

Good relationships with other people are important for mental wellbeing. Connecting with others can help build a sense of belonging and self-worth. It can also help you to chat about how you are feeling and give emotional support.  

You may not want to speak to a friend or family member about how you are feeling. If not, you could contact an emotional support line.  Emotional support lines are listening services. 

We have listed some emotional support lines in the ‘Useful Contacts’ section at the bottom of this page.

For more information, see our webpage on Social inclusion and mental illness - How can I become more connected?

Learn a new skill   

Learning a new skill can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. It can help boost self-confidence and help you connect with others. It can also build a sense of purpose and support recovery.

There are lots of different ways to bring learning into your life. You could learn to cook something new. Like trying a new hobby such as painting or learn how to do something practical like changing a car tyre. 

Dealing with stress

A lot of things in life can cause stress, which can impact your mental health. Sometimes stress cannot be avoided. But you may be able to use coping techniques to limit the effects of stress.

For more information see our webpages on the following:

Useful contacts

Sane Line
Specialist emotional support and information to anyone affected by mental illness.

Phone: 0300 304 7000. 
Support forum: www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/support/supportforum 
Email: support@sane.org.uk
Website: www.sane.org.uk 

Samaritans 
Confidential support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair, or suicidal thoughts.

Phone: 116 123. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Address: Freepost SAMARITANS LETTERS
Email: jo@samaritans.org 
Website: www.samaritans.org 

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) 
Provides emotional support for anyone who needs it. Leading a movement against suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

Phone: 0800 58 58 58. 
Address: CALM, PO Box 68766, London SE1P 4JZ
Webchat: www.thecalmzone.net/help/webchat 
Website: www.thecalmzone.net 

Silverline
Aimed at people over 55. The Silver Line operates the only confidential, free helpline for older people across the UK that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

Phone:  0800 470 80 90. 
Website: www.thesilverline.org.uk

The Mix
Confidential help for people under the age of 25. You can book telephone counselling on their website. They also have a webchat service and a crisis messenger service that you can text.

Phone: 0808 808 4994. 
Email: (online website) www.themix.org.uk/get-support/speak-to-our-team/email-us
Webchat: www.themix.org.uk/get-support/speak-to-our-advisors
Crisis messenger: text THEMIX to 85258
Website: www.themix.org.uk 

SupportLine 
Confidential emotional support for children, young adults and adults.

Phone: 01708 765200 (hours vary so ring for details)
Address: PO Box 2860, Romford, Essex RM7 1JA
Email: info@supportline.org.uk
Website: www.supportline.org.uk

 

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© Rethink Mental Illness 2022

Last updated February 2024
Next update February 2027 (subject to any changes)

Version number 12

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