As much as I would like to say that we can prevent all mental illness, unfortunately our genetics have a lot of responsibility here. Saying that, we can make many changes that will determine if our genes are ‘switched on’ or not. Welcome to the theory of epigenetics. What this fascinating branch of genetics suggests is that not only does it matter if you have a family history of a mental illness, but it also matters what your parents and grandparents have done with their health as well as what you do to your own body.
Epigenetic changes are like tags or beacons on our DNA. They can switch our genes on, or off, just like a light switch without changing the genetic code of a person. We’re all born with our genes (our DNA) – fortunately or unfortunately we can’t change our parents! – but the complexity and individuality of how we differ is determined by our environment, and diet and that of our parents and grandparents. This explains why identical twins have the same genetic material but not necessarily the same health manifestations. Both get genetic information from Mum and Dad but epigenetics determines which bits are ‘switched on’ and which aren’t. For example, which one may present with depression and which one won’t.
A number of factors including nutritional (both dietary and supplemental), environmental (toxin exposure), stress (emotional and physical) and various infections have the ability to switch on a gene that codes for a mental illness. For example, a marked deficiency in B vitamins has been linked with all mental illnesses including anxiety; lead exposure has strong links with depression; marijuana has irrefutable links with schizophrenia; and emotional and physical abuse has been shown to associate with the development of psychosis.
Mental illness whilst having negative stereotypes, is fundamentally a group of diseases that affects a system of the body. We are not only what we eat but we are exposed to. Prevention of mental illness is fundamentally taking responsibility for your health and the health of your children.