Food and Behaviour Research

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19 December 2014 - The Conversation - We know mental illnesses run in families but we still don’t protect children

Sam Cartwright-Hatton, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychology at University of Sussex

Mental illness runs in families. This is well known and uncontroversial. There is much that we could do to reduce this risk, but we currently do almost nothing.


These targeted interventions sound very promising to help tackle the environmental factors involved in the  development of mental illness. Educating parents and health professionals on the benefits of nourishing food would, of course, bring benefit to these families; particularly the children, whose bodies and brains are still developing.

A parent with mental illness is several times more likely to have a child with psychological problems than a healthy parent. For example, a child whose parent has an anxiety disorder has a one in three chance of developing an anxiety disorder of their own. If both of their parents has an anxiety disorder, the odds rise to two in three.

Mental illness runs through the generations via a complex mix of genes and environment. We can’t do much about the genes that parents pass to their children. But, the fact is, only part of the problem is genetic – and it is often less than you would imagine. For the majority of psychological disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and personality disorders, a large slice of the risk is from environmental factors – things we can, and should, do something about.

But what do we do to protect these children? In many cases, therapists won’t even know that their client has children. But if we take, for example, a depressed parent – their children have a 40% chance of developing major depressive disorder by the age of 20. If a child had a known 40% chance of developing a serious physical disorder, they would not be neglected in this way.

This neglect is such a shame. We know that when parents have mental illness but also have good parenting skills, their children’s mental health is protected. This has now been shown for a number of psychological disorders.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to be the best parent that you can when you are also struggling with mental illness. So children who are sustained by excellent parenting are probably in the minority.

But it need not be this way. Interventions that support parents with mental illness have begun to appear – and the results are promising. When parents with depression, bipolar disorder and OCD are given help and advice that supports their parenting, their children do better psychologically. It is early days for this research. But what is clear is that there is real scope for changing the lives of some very vulnerable children.