Should You Feel Guilty About Your Genetic Makeup?


Studies show that suicidal behavior and depression may run in families, and doctors say parents often feel guilty about passing on such genetic disorders to their children, even though it’s out of their hands.

In light of Sylvia Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, committing suicide this week, as his mother did years ago, CNN is reporting that it’s actually common for family members of people who have committed suicide to have suicidal tendencies themselves. A first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling, or child, of a person who has committed suicide is four to six times more likely to try to kill themselves, said Dr. David Brent, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. According to studies on twins, suicidal behavior is 30 to 50 percent due to inherited factors. Even suicide victims’ biological relatives who were adopted away show a greater rate of suicides.

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences depression may also be inherited. Researchers found that the children of depressed people had a similar structural difference in their brain. The data showed that even before the children and grandchildren of depressed people developed symptoms, they had a thinner brain surface than average.

Researchers believe this thinning of the cortex may interfere with the processing of emotional stimuli, but say the cause of depression and suicidal behavior is still a combination of genetics and environment. The rate of suicide in America is 10.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, which means suicide is still rare. “Genetics is not destiny,” said Dr. Brent. “The odds are still very much against you having this happening to another relative.”

But even though having these afflictions doesn’t mean they will definitely be passed on, people often feel that they are responsible for their children’s genetic disorders. ABC News reports that feelings of guilt may be becoming more common, since with advances in medicine we can often determine which conditions are genetic, or which parent may have passed on the gene for a disease.

Six years ago, when Marietta Drucker, then 76, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her two daughters tested positive for the breast cancer gene a few weeks later. “I felt devastated. I felt sick about it. How could I give the people most precious to me in my whole life — my two daughters — this awful, awful gene,” Drucker told ABC News.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that humans developed the emotion of guilt long ago to help compel us to help others and empathize. However, guilt can also be harmful, as it may cause people to be filled with a sense of shame that cuts them off from others, even when it’s not warranted.

Dr. Philip R. Muskin, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, says that even though technically it is a parent’s fault when a child inherits a disease, parents shouldn’t feel guilty about it. “A parent can’t control the fact that her child has a disease, but she can emotionally take on the burden. Feeling guilty is a sly, emotional way to take control,” says Muskin. “Ideally, the parent comes to the conclusion that ‘this isn’t my fault’ and accepts there are things out of our control. Can people reach that point? They can. Is it easy? No.”

[Image via Flickr.]

Suicidal Behavior May Run In Families [CNN]
The Heaviest Heart: Guilt And Genetic Disease [ABC News]

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