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Nature vs nurture: siblings and mental health

What role do genetics and environmental factors play in mental health?

Hannah’s story

Hannah and Sara* are sisters from Sydney. They grew up in the same house together, and went to the same schools. Neither of their parents have a mental illness, but their grandmother had bipolar disorder. And while Hannah, 32, has never had mental health problems, Sara, 26, suffers from depression.

About mental health

Hannah and Sara’s story isn’t unique. One million Australian adults live with depression, and it’s estimated that 45% of Aussies will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. This can range from depression and anxiety, to bipolar and schizophrenia.

Some of us may have siblings with mental health problems; and some of us may live with mental health problems while our siblings are unaffected. This poses an interesting question: how can two people like Hannah and Sara, with the same biological parents and very similar life experiences, have different mental health outcomes?

Nature vs. nurture

We know that having a family history of conditions like anxiety or depression means you are more likely to develop them yourself, and some people may have a genetic pre-disposition. However, many factors contribute to your risk of developing a mental health condition.

Environmental and behavioural factors play a large role in your level of risk. And while you might share some of these factors with your sibling, for example, a supportive relationship with your parents, there are many factors that differ from sibling to sibling. Things like your personality and your relationship with your friends can be very different to your sibling’s.

It’s also important to remember that stressful life events can cause mental health issues, things like long-term unemployment, stress at work or having experienced abuse.

So even if you both have a family history of mental illness, it probably only plays a small part in whether or not you develop one.

What to do if you think your sibling has a mental health problem

The experience of having a sibling with a mental health condition is different for everybody, and can be distressing. It’s a complex situation, and needs to be handled carefully. If you suspect your sibling is suffering from a mental illness, seek help and advice. Make an appointment with your GP, or seek information from organisations like beyondblue or ReachOut.

Your role

Depending on your family structure, you may take on an active or passive support role in your sibling’s care and support. Try and discuss roles and responsibilities openly with your brother or sister and other family members. Sometimes just being there on the phone is all they need.

Your health matters too

Remember it’s important to look after yourself. Supporting someone through their mental health issues can be stressful. There are simple things you can do to look after yourself, like getting lots of sleep, exercise and making time for things you love. And don’t be afraid to seek some mental health help for yourself. There are lots of great services out there.

At Medibank, it’s not just your physical health we care about. Your mental health matters, too. If you’re looking for more information on mental health and the health issues that matter most to young people, click hereFurther information and support is also available by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

*Names have been changed


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