genetics and depression

My babies and me 2019

Isla, Eli and me. Family portraits 2019

When I was pregnant with my oldest in 2014 I was worried about a lot of things, which is completely normal for a first-time mom. One thing that surprisingly didn’t worry me was my child inheriting depression and anxiety. That came later.

By the time I was pregnant with Isla, I had been managing my depression for about 11 years. It was not severe, just required medication and therapy. It was a struggle for sure, but nothing like the all-consuming depression I faced after having Isla and then again after having Eli.

My anxiety was out of control and I felt overwhelmingly sad. Plus, I was suicidal. My doc was not helpful. He labeled me “treatment resistant,” but didn’t offer any more help. So in 2019, I went to an inpatient facility in Houston for six weeks. Long story short, I got better and found a combo of meds, therapy and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). It’s still hard but I feel more in control and have more clarity with my illness.

My anxiety is still bad and sometimes I get obsessive thoughts that will cycle in my head. One of them is worry for Isla. I want her to be like me in so many ways, but I desperately hope she’s able to bypass mental illness. While there isn’t a single “depression gene,” genetics do play a part. A Standford.edu study says that scientists have looked at patterns of illness in families to estimate their “heritability,” or what percentage of their cause is due to genes. They did that by finding people with the disease who have a twin, and then find out whether the twin is ill. Identical (monozygotic) twins share 100 percent of their genes, while non-identical (“fraternal” or dizygotic) twins share 50 percent of their genes.  If genes are part of the cause, then you can expect a patient’s identical twin to have a much higher risk of disease than a patient’s non-identical twin.  That is the case for major depression.  Heritability is probably 40-50 percent and might be higher for severe depression.

I’ve already noticed that Isla can be high-strung and a little anxious. She has big emotions, which is normal for an almost 6-year-old. Still I worry. You might think, “What about Eli?” Depression and anxiety hit women harder; twice as many women than men experience major depression. The only thing I’ve observed in Eli is that he’s weird, which is fine by me, even preferred. He’s not out of the woods in regards to mental illness but really I don’t recognize “signs” of a mood disorder or depression.

Am I overreacting and seeing things that aren’t there in Isla? Maybe. Isla’s 5 and Eli’s 3. That’s too young for a diagnosis but if someone has a family history of severe depression, they (parent or a child) has a greater risk (2-3 times higher) of developing depression. If a parent or sibling develop depression in childhood, that rate is probably around 4 to 5 times higher.

As a mom with severe depression and anxiety, I’ll probably always worry and I think that’s normal, for whatever “normal” is worth. For now, my focus is to not focus on any markers I think I see. And while I am open with them about my depression, I don’t want it to define our relationship. But I refuse to totally keep it a secret, because that only creates a breeding ground for shame. Also, I think they sense it, to a degree, but they’re too young to experience and understand the complex emotions that depression and anxiety bring with it. I think it’s good for them to see me cry and it’s a goal of mine to instill the belief that showing your feelings and emotions are OK. That you’re strong when you can sort out and talk through your emotions. And I’m all about them being strong.

Some view sharing emotions as a weakness, but I’ve been through enough in my life to I know it is my strength, and if my kids do become depressed in the future, it will be my strength that can help them find their way out of the darkness.

I can remember times in 7th grade where I had anxiety and what seemed to be depression. I couldn’t verbalize my fear and pain, and because of that, I never got help. That won’t be my kids, I won’t let it.

Depression is such a complicated disease and not everything is understood. It has handicapped me at times, each time making me stronger. Depression may be hereditary, but I’ll teach my kids how to fight and adapt. How to dig deep and find strength. I come from strong stock, and I will teach them to live life even when you have obstacles in the way. Hopefully, they’ll be better and stronger than I’ve ever been. But if they’re not, that’s OK too.

I hope I don’t sound defeatist in this blog, but I do think being open and honest is a must when you fight depression. I would never wish this struggle on anyone else, least not my kids, and I pray that I never have to hear them them cry as many tears as I have or hear them say they wish they were dead. Nobody does, and that’s why I will never stop talking about mental health.

If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, please reach out to a doctor. If you or a loved one is suicidal, please call the Lifelife Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Read more about depression here.

As always, you can contact me at heatherannloeb@gmail.com

Stay in the light, my friends.



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