Parental mental illness can predict illness in children


Where does it come from?

It’s a common question when people hear about a child who attempted suicide or acted violently against a classmate. Was it the media? Video games? Upbringing?

Although there are many causes that can potentially cause children to become violent (either against themselves or others), a new study from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom seems to show that the psychiatric disorders of parents are associated with both violent behavior and suicide in their children.

Risks vary with disorders

In the study, the researchers examined a group of over 1.7 million Danish people born between 1967 and 1997. They looked for connections between suicide attempts and violent crimes committed by children and a long list of possible mental disorders in their parents, including:

  • Substance use disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Mood disorders
  • Suicide attempts

The researchers followed up on their subjects once they reached their 15th birthday, and continued studying their subjects until Dec. 31, 2012. During the study period, 2.6 percent of the study group had attempted suicide at one point and just over 3 percent had been convicted of a violent offense.

Some of the findings the researchers found were:

  • Nearly every mental disorder experienced by parents increased the risks for attempted suicide and violent behavior in children.
  • The greatest risks for children came from parents who had diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder, cannabis abuse and/or at least one prior suicide attempt. However, the lowest risks came from parents with mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder
  • The relationship between violent behavior in children and parental mental disorders was stronger in female children

“Psychiatrists and other professionals treating adults with mental disorders and suicidal behavior should consider also evaluating the mental health and psychosocial needs of their patients’ children. Early interventions could benefit not only the parents but also their offspring,” the authors conclude in their study.

Why do children of the mentally ill often have problems?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIDA), five major mental disorders – autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and depression – have genetic roots. Additionally, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports the unpredictable home environments that untreated mental illnesses can create problems later in life as well.

However, it’s not just mental illnesses and substance abuse that contribute to the development of mental disorders in children. Nonprofit mental health advocacy organization Mental Health America identifies the following as additional risk factors in children:

  • Poverty: A study in 2005 found poverty may be a predictor of mental illness – except for schizophrenia
  • Marriage difficulties
  • Co-occurring conditions: Known as a dual diagnosis, patients with this condition have both a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness
  • Poor communication between parent and child
  • Aggressive, hostile and/or violent behavior from the parent
  • Single-parent families

AACAP also provides a list of factors that can help lower the risk of a child developing a mental disorder, including:

  • Help and support from other family members
  • Making sure the child knows they are not to blame for their parent’s illness
  • Positive self esteem
  • Strong relationships with healthy adults

Given the multigenerational effects of mental illness, seeking treatment for mental disorders is critically important. Unfortunately, stigma plays a very strong role even in families.

Stigma in families

A study published in Psychological Medicine in 2013 studied surveys conducted by the World Health Organization which measured attitudes towards various illnesses in over 16 countries. The study estimated the degree of embarrassment a family member might feel when a family member had a general health condition compared to when a family member had a mental or substance abuse disorder.

The results showed although both physical and mental illness take tolls on families, family members were more likely to feel a stigma when a family member had a mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adolescents aged between 13 and 18 in the U.S. will have a severe mental disorder during their life. Unfortunately, NAMI also reports just over half of children actually receive treatment.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12 to 17. Staffed by compassionate experts in both education and treatment, we offer a safe environment for boys to reach their full potential. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. 

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