Genetic Counseling Empowers People with Mental Illness

Tuesday October 31, 2017

Genetic counseling can be empowering for people with mental illness, improving their outlook on life by giving them a new perspective to help them better understand and manage their condition, suggests a study from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

While many people with mental illness have some understanding that their condition is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, genetic counseling provides them more insight into what that actually means, says Alicia Semaka, Ph.D, CGC, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. 

Previous quantitative studies have shown that genetic counseling can lead to positive outcomes for people with mental illness, helping them feel less self-stigma and more control. The authors of the new qualitative study interviewed ten people with bipolar disease, schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as depression) before and after genetic counseling to better understand how counseling influences patient outcomes.

During the genetic counseling session, the genetic counselor uses an analogy of a "mental health jar" to help people understand how various genetic and environmental factors can work together to fill up their jar and cause it to overflow, leading to an episode of mental illness.

For example, a person's mental illness jar might be partially filled by having a mother or father with mental illness. Childhood trauma, head injury, the use of recreational drugs, or other stressful life events can also add to a person's jar.

The mental health jar analogy also helps people better understand how to protect their mental health. Protective factors, such as getting adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise, having a good support system and taking medications as prescribed by a doctor make a person's mental illness jar larger, reducing the likelihood of overflow that would result in illness.

The jar analogy provided during genetic counseling helps people better understand how the bits and pieces of information on mental illness fit together for them.
"The lightbulb goes off," Semaka said. "Genetic counseling is helpful because it provides people accessible and personalized information, but the way in which this information is provided also influences outcomes."

The people she interviewed said the genetic counselors listened to the individuals' stories and addressed their questions, in an empathetic, non-judgmental way.

Participants felt the genetic counselor was trustworthy and knowledgeable and engaged them in the counseling process, which validated their experiences with mental illness. It appears that the unique combination of information and support provided during genetic counseling produces an empowering effect, so people feel more able to manage and talk about their mental illness.

Semaka noted that genetic counseling for mental illness is not routinely offered and highlighted the need for widespread availability.

"Genetic counseling is a simple, inexpensive clinical intervention that has great potential to help people better manage their mental illness and improve their mental health." Genetic counseling could be similarly beneficial for people with other conditions that are caused by a combination of genetics and environment, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

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