Living

Would having a family history of mental illness stop you from having kids?

A few weeks ago a friend who is expecting his first child with his wife confided his worry about whether or not their soon-to-be-born child would inherit his sibling’s chronic debilitating depression.

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Masterfile

A few weeks ago a friend who is expecting his first child with his wife confided his worry about whether or not their soon-to-be-born child would inherit his sibling’s chronic debilitating depression. For my friend, the risk wasn’t a great enough concern to ruin the excitement of the pregnancy, but it was a nagging anxiety that did give him pause for reflection.

His worry reflects a common dilemma among those with a family history of mental illness. For some people, the decision whether or not to have a child is complicated enough. But for those who have a history of depression or a genetic predisposition to mental illness in their family, the decision to have a child can be more difficult.

As an article on Time.com notes, some people are taking a pass on reproducing their DNA because of those fears. In the article, it cites a recent interview with comedian Sarah Silverman who declared that she didn’t want to have her own biological child out of fear that her offspring might inherit her tendency toward depression. Said Silverman: “I know that I have this depression and that it’s in my family. Every family has their stuff but, for me, I just don’t feel strong enough to see that in a child.”

And yet, as the article goes on to point out, there may be more to the issue than Silverman thinks. In fact, there may even be a bright — if not downright brilliant — side to the issue.

Time writer Maia Szalavitz cites research that suggests that the very genes that underlie depression may also be responsible for the kind of creative sensibility that one needs to be a comedian, a writer, an actor or other creative talent. Writes Szalavitz:  “Indeed, some research suggests that the same exact genetics that might lead to depression can also lead to mental superhealth, depending on whether a person endured high stress in early childhood or had a calmer, more nurturing environment.” 

For those concerned about passing on an impaired genetic inheritance, the news that a seeming weakness can become an individual’s strength may come as good news. For others the complexities of human development may seem more like a high-risk gamble, and one not worth taking.