My boyfriend’s mother has schizophrenia. We have been talking about getting married and having children. I’m concerned about the chances that we could have a child who would develop schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a serious neurobiologic disorder in which a person’s brain functioning is affected so that they experience a number of different symptoms, including symptoms of psychosis. Psychosis means a loss of touch with reality. Psychotic symptoms include hearing voices or seeing things which aren’t really there (hallucinations), having bizarre and/or disorganized speech or behavior, having unusual thoughts, paranoia, or delusional ideas, and being socially isolated, withdrawn, and unmotivated.
Yes, there definitely seems to be a genetic component for some forms of schizophrenia. The general risk for developing schizophrenia is one percent for the population at large (one in a hundred people will develop some form of schizophrenia over the course of their lifetimes). For an identical twin, the risk is about 50 percent, while for first-degree relatives (a son or daughter, a sibling) the risk is about 10-15 percent. For a second-degree relative (niece or nephew, grandchild), the risk appears to be about 5 percent.
Many researchers now believe that in certain cases, a child can inherit a genetic risk or vulnerability for schizophrenia, but that this must interact with other factors in order for the full-blown disorder to develop. Some of these additional risk factors appear to include: injuries to the fetus while it is developing in the mother’s uterus (such as malnutrition in the mother, or a severe viral illness that affects mother and fetus), prolonged difficulties during labor and delivery, severe childhood illnesses or fevers, head trauma, and substance abuse. If a genetically “at-risk” individual encounters these additional factors, he or she increases the likelihood of developing schizophrenia during adolescence or early adulthood.
This is just a long way of saying that although your children might have a higher chance of getting schizophrenia than someone without the same genetic background, there are probably factors that can help to reduce their risk of developing the illness. A healthy pregnancy, good prenatal care, a well-supervised labor and delivery, and attention to the child’s development, including watching out for trauma and substance use, can all help to promote healthy brain functioning.
In a way we don’t fully understand, there seem to be some other protective factors also for schizophrenia (and probably for mental illness in general): helping a child learn to develop and maintain good interpersonal relationships with peers, helping a child learn that it is important and fulfilling to have friends and to interact with others, and providing overall psychosocial stability and reduced stress for a youngster all seem to lessen a person’s risk for developing schizophrenia.
Finally, as someone who has worked with people who have schizophrenia and their families for many years, I think it’s important to pay attention to something we observe a lot even though we don’t have good research on it: having a family member with schizophrenia sometimes seems to indicate a genetic tendency to unusual or creative or innovative thinking. I personally know of a number of top-notch scientists who have a sibling or a child with schizophrenia. James Joyce and Albert Einstein both had daughters with schizophrenia, while Kurt Vonnegut had a son with schizophrenia.
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