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Patients and caregivers

Mental Illness Comorbidity: The Genetic Connection

comorbidity patient and caregiver in field

Mental illness comorbidity is common—making mental health not as simple as having one diagnosis. Here’s how your genes are involved.

It’s time to change how we think about mental health.

Is it just me?”

“I don’t understand why I worry about everything.”

“How come I can’t concentrate?” “Why am I sad all the time?”

“I’m diagnosed with ADHD, but I can’t leave my house.”

These statements may cover only one facet of what’s really going on.

It’s not as simple as having one diagnosis. Research is finding that mental health disorders don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s an underlying shared biology.

Studies of families and twin siblings confirm that some common psychiatric disorders are accounted for in part by shared genetic risk factors. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, for example, share some genes that are associated with each condition.  Obviously, your environment is still a strong contributing factor for these conditions, but your genetic profile can “prime the pump,” so to speak.

Simply put, there’s a genetic connection. Comorbidity is a common feature of mental illness—meaning two or more of them can occur at the same time, in the same person. Examples of conditions which are often co-occurring include: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD; major depressive disorder; bipolar disorder; schizophrenia; and anti-social disorders.

Because of these shared genetic risk factors, a family history of one disease could mean you’re at risk not only for that mental health condition, but for others as well.

For example, studies show that it’s more common for you to develop depression, anti-social disorders, or bipolar disorder if your family has a history of ADHD, compared to those who don’t have a family history of ADHD.  The good news is that those disorders are not completely heritable, and a positive, nurturing environment is always helpful in reducing the presentation of symptoms.

While your genetic data should never be used to make a psychiatric diagnosis, scientists are making the case that comorbidity needs to be taken into account during both diagnosis and treatment.

Without it, we may be missing an opportunity for treatment. The end goal of understanding and incorporating this genetic information is better mental health outcomes.

“I have bipolar disorder.”

“I have general anxiety disorder.”

“I have ADHD and depression.”

“I have ADHD and social anxiety disorder.”

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