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To Americans, genetics means little when evaluating mental illness

Posted Sep 01 2008 7:09pm
On one side of my family, mental illness is essentially the norm. We all have it- typically anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and eating/addiction disorders. That there is some genetic link to all of this brain disease and mental hijinks seems pretty obvious. Come to any of my family gatherings and let the weirdness begin!

But while many Americans are aware of the genetic links and origins of mental illness, it has yet to seep beneath that cursory "Yep, depression is genetic now get over it." I have family members (close ones, in fact) who won't speak to me because I'm callous and superficial and coddled and selfish because I had anorexia. And sought treatment. Expensive treatment (a lot of which I paid for). And quit my job and moved home and was temporarily disabled as my mind and body healed.

Yeah, yeah, anorexia is biological, he says. But I share many of your genes and I'm not anorexic, so stop wallowing in your silliness.

This particular relative isn't alone in his thinking. It more closely echoes those of many Americans, as elaborated in recent research in the journal Social Science and Medicine. The study, titled " An Uncertain Revolution: Why the Rise of a Genetic Model of Mental Illness Has Not Increased Tolerance," looks at the peculiar cognitive dissonance that exists in the field of mental illness and brain disease.

“In the case of schizophrenia, genetic arguments are associated with fears regarding violence,” Schnittker said. “In fact, attributing schizophrenia to genes is no different from attributing it to bad character — either way Americans see those with schizophrenia as ‘damaged’ in some essential way and, therefore, likely to be violent. However, when applied to depression, genetic arguments have very different connotations: they are associated with social acceptance. If you imagine that someone’s depression is a genetic problem, the condition seems more real and less blameworthy: it’s in their genes, they’re not weak, so I should accept them for who they are.”

Schnittker ’s study also shows that genetic arguments are associated with recommending medical treatment but are not associated with the perceived likelihood of improvement.

The message that doesn't get out, then, is that your biology isn't ultimately your destiny. I can't control that I had anorexia, that I was wired to respond to food deprivation differently than many people, that I find starvation calming and soothing. But I can learn to override those brain signals that purr starve, starve when I sense them coming. I can learn to monitor my food intake to make sure I'm eating enough. And my exercise to make sure that I'm not overdoing it.

This study only underlines why I continue to do what I do.
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