Questions about a person’s family history of mental illness is one of the quickest ways of predicting their risk of mental illness.
A 30-minute questionnaire about family history of depression, anxiety and substance abuse can predict approximate risk and severity for people, research finds.
Mental illnesses are among the most heritable disorders, so the result comes as no surprise.
However, the fact that the severity of people’s mental illness could be predicted is more novel.
Professor Terrie Moffitt, the study’s first author, said:
“There are lots of kids with behavior problems who may outgrow them on their own without medication, versus the minority with mental illnesses that need treatment.
Family history is the quickest and cheapest way to sort that out.”
The study examined 981 New Zealanders born in a single hospital in 1972 and 1973.
In what is known as the ‘Dunedin study’, these children have been tracked since they were 3-years-old.
The researchers found that more severe family histories of depression, anxiety, and substance dependence predicted worse mental health problems in the future.
The more severe the family history, the more severe the children’s problems.
Because of the stigma attached to mental health problems, it can be difficult to get someone’s family history.
The study’s authors suggest a more indirect line of questionning:
“Has anyone on the list of family members ever had a sudden spell or attack in which they felt panicked?” If the interviewee came up with a name, they were then asked, “Did this person have several attacks of extreme fear or panic, even though there was nothing to be afraid of?”
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The study was published in the journal Psychological Medicine (Moffitt et al., 2007).