Is Mental Health Developed by Nature or Nurture?

Divorce As a Catalyst for Intergenerational Mental Health Concerns

Can mental illness be passed down genetically, or is it influenced by our social surroundings? This is an ongoing debate between scholars and scientists.

This excerpt explores the theory of “the intergenerational transmission of mental illness” using divorce as a catalyst for negative mental health symptoms resulting in next-generation divorce. What does this mean? This basically means that if your parents get a divorce, you are likely to develop from some form of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, which leads to eventual divorce with your partner.

Inspired by the works of Paul R. Amato (1996), a professor of the Sociology and Criminology Department at Pennsylvania State University, I have challenged his study of “The Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce” by considering the influences of mental health in this process.

Amato (1996) developed a causal diagram to illustrate the relationship between parental divorce and their kid’s divorce, finding three mediating variables that work as an influencer within this relationship (recreated in Figure 1). These include (1) life course and socioeconomic variables (the “normality” of your life path and your level of privilege in society), (2) divorce attitudes of offspring (your opinion of divorce), and (3) offsprings’ interpersonal behaviour problems (the ability to express your emotions and develop relationships with others). Amato’s study looks at the relationship between divorce of the parent and their child for heterosexual families in the United States.

While reading through this study, I noticed that it didn’t talk much about mental health, especially among the affected children. Other studies have shown a relationship between parental divorce and mental health, and I believe poor mental health has a significant role within Amato’s model. Figure 2 below shows my hypothesis in relation to Amato’s (1996) original diagram, adding in mental health and next generation to demonstrate the relationship between my hypothesis and Amato’s study.

Through the research I have done, I have found many theories in family studies that support my perspective on this subject. Life course theory, for example, is used when studying how the events and stages of life impact the developmental process of an individual and family as a whole (White, Klein, & Martin, 2015). For instance, a teen pregnancy will influence a low chance of obtaining a post-secondary education. Those who do not experience this life event have a higher chance of getting a credential higher than a high school diploma (Moore & Waite, 1977; Bradley, Cupples, & Irvine, 2001; Basch, 2011). Many people in our society would probably say that teen pregnancy is an “abnormal life path”.

Life course theory supports that divorce influences poor mental health in the child as the “traumatic” event of divorce negatively impacts the development and social experiences of the individual in the future of the child’s adult life. For example, if a child develops depression in response to their parent’s divorce, this will negatively influence the way in which they develop strong relationships with others in the future and this will influence the amount of faith they have in marriage in entirety (Davila, 2001; Segrin et al., 2003). This doesn’t mean the child will not have friends or a partner, but the influence of untreated mental illness will have an effect on the strength and sense of meaningfulness within these relationships. Therefore, the child has a high chance of experiencing divorce in their adult future. The cycle goes on…

Why is this important?

Divorce rates within North America are increasing. Not only should we be concerned with the high likelihood of this passing on to the next generation, but we also have to be concerned with the increasing rates of mental illness.

Can mental health be passed down genetically? I don’t think so. This may be purely due to my sociological bias, but the connection one has with their parents at birth is so immense, it can seem like our habits, interests, and experiences with mental health issues are hereditary. Even doctors have begun to explore the social impacts on health. The US Institute of Medicine, for instance, researches how our social and cultural environment plays a significant role in our health (Hernandez, 2006). I truly believe that the influence of our social environment impacts our well-being.

Figure 1 Amato’s (1996) diagram of his study “Explaining the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce” (p. 629).

Figure 2 Adapted causal model from Amato (1996) on page 629. Two variables have been added: mental health and next generation.