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Family History Predicts Frequency, Severity of Mental Illness

Although mental illness is known to run in families, doctors don't always ask questions about it when they take a patient's family history. But researchers say knowing about the relatives may help predict who is at risk for serious mental health problems.

Duke University psychology professor Avshalom Caspi says for most people who suffer from mental illness, the condition is temporary.

"They're going to get better without treatment. What we want to know is, for that minority who do have serious and long-lasting disorders, how can we identify them? And I think the family history may be offering us a very quick and a cheap way to sort these groups out."

Taking a family history is common practice to identify who is at risk for heart disease, cancer or other physical illnesses. But most doctors don't ask if mental illness runs in the family.

Caspi thinks that should change. He and his colleagues found that people with a family history of depression, anxiety, alcoholism or drug dependence had more episodes of these disorders themselves, and had more severe episodes, compared to those without a family history. He says the important finding was not just that psychiatric illnesses run in families.

"…but rather that individuals and sufferers who have a family history may be especially prone to have mental health issues that are likely to be very long-lasting and debilitating. It's for those people that the treatment and early detection may, in fact, be most important."

The findings come from a study that focuses on a group of nearly a thousand people born between 1972 and '73 at a hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand. Researchers followed them into adulthood and asked questions about their family history. Because there can be a stigma around mental health, Caspi says the researchers asked questions about the symptoms of mental disorders instead.

"So, instead of asking somebody, 'Do you know of anyone in your family who's had a history of an anxiety disorder?', instead what we've actually asked is, 'Has anyone in your family had a sudden spell or an attack in which they felt panic?'"

Caspi says these kinds of questions can be integrated fairly easily into a standard physical examination. His study appears in the Archives of General Psychiatry.