Mental illness and addiction can figure prominently in the decision to have children or not. One’s own struggles with either or both certainly weigh heavily in the balance if there is enough presence of mind to consider the wisdom of having children or not. Life can be overwhelmingly difficult when mental illness and addiction are unmanaged. Adding a child’s needs to the mix can exact a staggering toll on coping and emotional resources alone.
Apart from one’s own mental illness or addiction, a family history of them, even living relatives with them, can figure prominently in the decision to have children or not. Mental illness and addiction have taken a severe toll in countless families–through the generations, and often among several family members at once in a single generation.
The Trauma of Parental Mental Illness and Addiction
People who grow up in families with mental illness and/or addiction often have chronic problems including trauma symptoms, relationship difficulties, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. These issues will certainly affect their own attitudes and behaviors as parents. And, if they lived with such parental issues for a long period of time as children themselves, chances are they have what is known as Developmental Trauma which can increase the problems they will face as parents many fold.
Living with parental mental illness and/or addiction dramatically increases the risk of living with such as adverse conditions as poverty, neglect, abandonment, abuse and exposure to violence. Consequently, children in these situations are at great risk for developing a form of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) which is often called Developmental Trauma that can cause lifelong problems.
At minimum, in the case of unmanaged parental mental illness and addiction, children’s basic needs for emotional security, consistent support, protection, connection and guidance can go unmet. This leads to missing important developmental milestones that require a secure connection to a protective parent and having a consistently supportive environment to live in.
People with such family histories can be seriously concerned they may pass on their own childhood legacy to children of their own, and research proves their worries may be well-founded. Adults who suffered childhood adversity such as parental addiction and parental mental illness, have children who are four times more likely to have mental health problems.
Mental Illness, Heredity and Environment
We know now that mental illness can be strongly linked to heredity, so concerns about the genetic nature of such problems is reasonable when deciding whether or not to have children. Simply having lived with a parent who suffered from a mental illness is impactful enough to give one pause when thinking about having a child. Many wonder if the same will happen to them—will they become ill and cause their own children to suffer as they did, or if not, will the family illness be passed on to any children they may have.
Mental illnesses overall are believed to be caused by both inherited traits and environmental factors, but research shows clearly that some are genetically predisposed to mental health problems. This means that genetic links to mental health problems have been identified—more for some disorders than others. Among those clearly shown to have strong genetic links are schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and hyperactivity disorder.
It’s common practice for healthcare providers to look for a family history of such conditions in previous generations and among siblings. Overall, people whose parents had a mental illness are at a higher risk of having one themselves at some point in their lifetimes. And, it is not only genetics that carry on a family legacy of mental health issues. Learning dysfunctional world views and coping strategies can also make one vulnerable, as can adverse living conditions caused by a suffering parent.
Addiction, Genetics and Environment
Research has shown that addiction runs in families and that many have a biological predisposition to substance problems. Those who are genetically vulnerable stand a significant chance of developing a problem if they begin substance use. In fact, research suggests that genetic factors are 50% of the risk profile for developing an addiction.
Research has found also that there is not simply an addiction gene, but that the issue is far more complex. For example, genes that affect mood can significantly play into the risk for addiction, as can genes that determine the individual metabolism of substances. These are just two examples. To make matters even more complicated, environmental factors play a role, too.
The use of substances itself is a learned behavior. There are many realms of life in which such factors arise—family, school, social settings, community, work and the culture at large. Environmental factors such as having access to substances, and being in the company of others who use, increase the risk of use and later problems, for example. Other environmental factors that increase the risk of addiction are the attitudes of people around us socially, as well as in our families.
Addressing the Issues and Your Decision to Have Children
Certainly, many manage mental illness very well and many successfully recover from addiction. They go on to have successful lives and happy families. However, when either condition is not well managed, life in every aspect can destabilize. The ability to work, manage a home, adhere to a daily schedule, have healthy relationships, keep finances in order, carry out responsibilities and even tend to personal self-care can be seriously compromised. Dependent and vulnerable children living with parents who cannot cope with the basics of daily life suffer from neglect at best, and endangerment in the worst-case scenario.
If you are concerned about your own risks in having children who may ‘inherit’ the effects of mental illness or addiction, here are some things to ask yourself as you explore the issues in greater depth. Do you or your life partner:
- Have a family history of mental illness and/or substance problems
- Have primary relatives (parents, siblings) who have either problem
- Use addictive substances
- Have symptoms such as depression, anxiety, poor impulse control, mood swings, hallucinations, delusions, flashbacks, obsessions, compulsive behaviors
- Have a history of growing up with unmanaged parental mental illness or active parental addiction
Naturally, these are simply starting points in anyone’s exploration. However, they are basic and significant issues. If you or your significant other is struggling with the symptoms of mental illness and/or addiction, there are effective solutions. A family legacy of struggle can be resolved in your life with the proper drug and rehab treatment center and commitment.
You do not have to ‘pass on’ the psychological and behavioral effects of your own untreated mental illness or addiction to your children, nor that of their extended family. This will not, of course, alter genetic risks, but will give you a head start in recognizing warning signs and intervening promptly if you do have children who develop problems. If you need help, reach out. Help is available.