Things we don't usually talk about

Date

As told to Samantha Selinger-Morris

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Photo: Getty

Kelly McDonald* was afraid to have children in case they inherited mental illness.

I used to feel afraid to have children because mental illness runs strongly in my family. My mother, my sister and myself, we're the only ones in our family not affected by it – and I have 17 first cousins.

My mother's grandfather killed his second family and then himself. 

There's schizophrenia and depression on both sides of my family. My mother's grandfather had depression. He killed his second family and then himself.

When we were growing up, my mother was always really open about the fact that there was mental illness in the family but she was more concerned with us developing substance abuse problems. There's a lot of self-medicating in the family. I can take or leave alcohol but lots of people in my family cannot drink in moderation. My sister and I are lucky that we didn't go down that path.

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My mother says her parenting technique was to do everything she could to not make the mistakes of her mother. She didn't want to turn out like her mother and be hospitalised for alcoholism. She didn't want to pass down her parents' craziness.

When my sister and I were teenagers, I don't think we were concerned that we would become mentally ill because we felt we were invincible. Now I just think we got a lucky roll of the dice.

My mother and sister can get depressed, but it's not like they're clinically depressed.

I always thought I would adopt because of this illness in my family. People say, 'You never know what's going to happen when you adopt kids,' and that we would be dealing with the unknown. But, statistically speaking, my genes are not good. I don't have any nostalgia about passing down my bloodline, not after what happened with my mother's grandfather and the fear is always there of passing down mental illness and the problems that go along with it.

The people in my family may be pretty smart, and most of them are well educated, and most have a bit of money, but that does not equate with happiness or wellbeing.

So I thought maybe [the family bloodline] should stop with me. My husband just told me to relax. But it worried me, even though we did end up having children.

It's hard to judge now whether our kids [Mitchell, 3, Sasha, 1] will be affected. Mitchell's* almost four now and all toddlers go through that roller-coaster phase, but I can't help but worry. At what point will mental illness – if he does develop one – present itself? With schizophrenia, it usually presents itself in the late teens.

My sister has one child, but she doesn't worry about the possibilities of mental illness being passed on or stuff like that. I have that special worry gene, I guess, like my mother. We both get concerned with other people's problems and get stressed out on other people's behalf. I took her to the airport recently, and my car died at the terminal. I was outside the terminal and she was almost late for her flight, and could see the car was not working, and I saw the look on her face. I knew she was going to be in agony until she knew I had got out safely.

She sent me 10 text messages about it.

I'm concerned about my kids maybe having mental illness but there's nothing I can do about it. My sister's a nurse, so I'll want her to have the talk about it with my kids when they are older. I want her to explain the issues and that, because it runs in the family, they may inherit it.

I just want her to explain the chemical reasons for it. Because I worry that if I try to explain that stuff, it's just going to sound like I'm a worried mum.

Do I still worry that I may have mental illness? Well, I guess if you think you're going crazy, then you are probably not.

* Name has been changed.

15 comments

  • My wife and I both suffer from depression, but we were determined to have kids anyway.

    Our eldest son (3-and-a-half) is severely autistic, and his younger sister (nearly 2) is exhibiting similar behaviours.

    So it's true: you never know what you're going to get with your kids, regardless of genetics...

    Commenter
    Felix
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 9:03AM
    • True that.. I've got ZERO history of mental issues in my family. But my son's getting assessed for ASD, and we've got another one on the way. Still, I keep wondering if I would have agreed for a 2nd child had we known about the ASD risk.

      PS I think there's something wrong in the enviroment, food or something which is causing such high ASD diagnosis in Australia. I came from overseas (Asia), and Autism incidence is quite low over there.

      Commenter
      Father
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 4:56PM
  • I probably won't have kids as I have three inherited conditions that I'll likely pass on. On their own they might not amount to much but I think passing on all three together would make me short-sighted and selfish in the extreme.

    Commenter
    Unknown
    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 9:37AM
    • I have an anxiety disorder which has at times been severe and I have slight depressive tendencies. I think it's from my dad's side, but he also had alcohol and gambling issues which I do not.

      I will still have children. I feel like at least if they have any of my problems I will understand exactly what they are going through and have a chance of helping them. I had to figure much of it out on my own, they won't have to as I will be watching them very closely for the signs.

      That said, if I had a psychotic or personality disorder I might re-consider having kids. Anxiety is fairly harmless but disorders such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder are another kettle of fish.

      Commenter
      Kat
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 11:37AM
      • Kat - I am happily married, have had a very successful professional career, winning national awards in my field. I have a circle of great friends, have travelled extensively and volunteer weekly with African refugees. Next year, I will start my law degree after deferring an offer for a place in 2013.

        I also have manic depression - or bipolar disorder as you choose to refer to it. Are you saying I should never have been born? That my life is not worth living?

        Because essentially that is how your comment comes across.

        If I should never have been born, then please justify why.

        Commenter
        CJ
        Location
        Newcastle
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 12:13PM
      • CJ - whoa you took me by surprise because I wasn't saying that at all. I'm sorry if that's how it came across because I certainly do not feel that people like you should never have been born. One of my closest friends has severe bipolar disorder and she is a highly gifted individual who adds much to this world.I am very glad she was born.

        I guess I was just saying that as an anxiety sufferer I'm not as worried about passing it on to my kids as if I had one of the other disorders mentioned. Not because I think psychotic and personality disorders should be eradicated from the gene pool Nazi-style, but because I think those disorders have a greater impact on sufferers and those around them quite often. I'm not sure if I would be ready to bring up a child in that context.

        Again, sorry if I offended you and well done, sounds like you have a great life.

        Commenter
        Mellah
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 12:36PM
      • Booyah! Mentally ill folk, represent!

        It’s ok, Kat – I had a lot of the same worries as you. I’m autism-spectrum with bouts of major depression. Depression, autism and schizophrenia share genetic links, and sure enough, all three of my brothers suffer from some combination of depression, autism and schizophrenia.

        And yet! And yet… I’m smart as hell. I’m happy as hell. I’ve saved several lives. I’ve impacted lots of people’s lives in a positive way. I’ve turned down jobs that pay a metric bucket-load of money because the stuff I’ve got going on is cooler. I’m genuinely in the position of trying to work out which of several ideas to change the world I want to pursue. I’m not talking about earth-shattering plans of conquest, but still meaningful stuff, important stuff.

        See, another thing that depression, autism and schizophrenia are associated with is weird genius. I know I’m failing at modesty in an epic way here, but I take a lot of pride in my weird genius, and if it wasn’t for people like me, humans would be a lot further back down the road, I reckon.

        And my kids have turned out AWESOME! They’re funny and quirky and kind and smart and happy. Most of all: happy.

        It’s risky, yep, but folk can’t be so scared of the potential downside that they worry about having kids, is what I’m saying. Be a kick-arse parent. Everything else is luck.

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 1:35PM
      • Booyah! Mentally ill folk, represent!

        It’s ok, Kat – I had a lot of the same worries as you. I’m autism-spectrum with bouts of major depression. Depression, autism and schizophrenia share genetic links, and sure enough, all three of my brothers suffer from some combination of depression, autism and schizophrenia.

        And yet! And yet… I’m smart as hell. I’m happy as hell. I’ve saved several lives. I’ve impacted lots of people’s lives in a positive way. I’ve turned down jobs that pay a metric bucket-load of money because the stuff I’ve got going on is cooler. I’m genuinely in the position of trying to work out which of several ideas to change the world I want to pursue. I’m not talking about earth-shattering plans of conquest, but still meaningful stuff, important stuff.

        See, another thing that depression, autism and schizophrenia are associated with is weird genius. I know I’m failing at modesty in an epic way here, but I take a lot of pride in my weird genius, and if it wasn’t for people like me, humans would be a lot further back down the road, I reckon.

        And my kids have turned out AWESOME! They’re funny and quirky and kind and smart and happy. Most of all: happy.

        It’s risky, yep, but folk can’t be so scared of the potential downside that they worry about having kids, is what I’m saying. Be a kick-arse parent. Everything else is luck.

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 1:35PM
    • If you knew you had the genes that made you more likely to pass on, say, breast or ovarian cancer, or Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, would you still be as concerned about the possible impacts on your children? Or cystic fibrosis? Or Huntingdon's? Or the literally thousands of other heritable conditions out there many of which are deadly.

      Or is it just the stigma attached to mental illness that has made you so concerned?

      Mental illness is a lot more complex than mere genetics and indeed 50 years of research has failed to identify exactly which genes, or combination or genes, are involved.

      More and more, environment is emerging as the major player in the triggering of mental illness, so as long as you ensure your children have a stable, loving environment to grow up in, chances are they won't develop schizophrenia or depression.

      At any rate,chances are pretty low anyway, even with family history. 6.5 per cent for schizophrenia with a first degree relative and 15-30 per cent with manic depression.. Or put another way, you have a 93.5 per cent chance of NOT getting schizophrenia; and 70 to 85 per cent chance of NOT getting manic depression.

      Life is a genetic lottery. There are so many heritable conditions out there. To zero in on mental illness as one that should preclude those with it having children smacks of eungenics at the worst and serious bigotry and ignorance at the least..

      And anyway, people with so called mental illness, particularly manic depression and depression have made huge contributions to the human race, in the creative arts particularly but also in science and other fields. To eliminate it from the human gene pool would most likely be to our detriment as a race.

      Commenter
      CJ
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 11:40AM
      • Oh, and one more thing.

        Good luck with the ''chemical reasons'' for mental illness stuff.

        There is no such thing.

        http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/06/chemical-imbalances-and-other-black-unicorns/

        Commenter
        CJ
        Location
        Newcastle
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 11:55AM

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