Depression and rogue genes: why my mother’s illness won’t define me

Anthea Rowan says despite anxiety over a family history of depression – with research suggesting a genetic link to the disease – one must avoid viewing it as an easily treated designer disorder

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 7:12pm

Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Bio X Institute, together with the University of California in Los Angeles, has initiated research to analyse the link between genetics and major depressive disorder, or MDD. The process will involve 70 hospitals, and over 20,000 blood samples from female sufferers of depression.

The University of Central Florida has just published a paper which poses that a gene variant, carried by nearly 25 per cent of the American population, increases the odds of developing depression.

These are just two more to add to the dozens of similar studies conducted over the years that strive to seek a heritable link to happiness – or the absence thereof.

Google alerts me the moment such research is available: madness is a part of my family’s normalcy – how ironic. I register the news, helpfully delivered to my inbox, with a modicum of anxiety: my mother has suffered from depression for most of my life, and my grandmother did, too.

I don’t believe I am destined to be a ‘blue-gened girl’

But while I would never invite physiological examination that may reveal I bear the rogue gene (I’d be too afraid of what the scientists may find), I don’t believe I am destined to be a “blue-gened girl”.

Mother Nature, wearing her vibrant strands of DNA, may be a compelling force, but what of the moulding effects of nurture?

I have stood so close to the illness, I can feel its distancing coldness. And in that proximity I have developed some comprehension of the catalysts that caused my mother to crash.

I have watched her since I was 12, seen the way the illness felled her, observed the accumulation of life stressors that hamstrung her until she collapsed.

How depression and anxiety needn’t be lifelong afflictions

As I grew up, I noticed she did not seem to have developed useful distractions from a sense of desolation. I know that making jam or joining a book club won’t protect a person from a crippling mental illness. I know real depression is much, much bigger than that. But I also know, because my mother has told me, that being busy lends buffers. “Be not idle, be not solitary,” as Robert Burton warned in his 16th century Anatomy of Melancholy.

Another similar study prompted me to contact one of the academics concerned. Professor Jonathan Flint at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine assuaged my anxiety: the genetic susceptibility to depression, was, he said, a complex one. It does not bear the same clear heritability as, say, cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.

Watch: Jonathan Flint talks about psychiatric genetics

My mother has depression, but she also has warm chocolate brown eyes and, when well, a calm, measured approach to life. I am green-eyed in every respect.

I am her daughter. Not her duplicate. I am further heartened when Flint agrees with me that awareness of one’s vulnerability – and we are all vulnerable, genetics aside – may reduce the risk of depression.

To be sometimes unhappy, enervated and anxious is part of the normal human condition

While I absolutely concede that it lends meaningful endorsement to sufferers of this horrible illness to confirm a biological link to a stigmatised condition by elevating it to a “real illness” (anchored by science), it can be unhelpful.

To be sometimes – and sometimes for a period of time – unhappy, enervated and anxious is part of the normal human condition, a healthy response to difficult circumstances.

Dr Michael Shooter, one-time president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, once told me that while awareness of mental illness was a very good thing, we had to be careful not to turn depression into a designer disorder, too hastily medicated.

With depression apparently written into your genes, your default reaction may be to forget that “this, too, shall pass” – to treat too swiftly rather than to let a bad day, or even a run of bad days, work its inevitable way out.

I don’t want my mother’s illness to be an excuse for the way I deal with despondency and disappointment, for that would be to diminish a real illness.

Anthea Rowan is a writer with a special interest in mental health