Would You Want to Know Your Risk of Developing Mental Health Issues?

If someone has a family history of cancer, they probably undergo early screenings because of their genetic risk. Likewise, when someone has a close family member with a rare genetic disease, or even cardiovascular disease or diabetes, they may be more sensitive to factors that will increase their already heightened risk for these diseases. However, disclosure of the actual risk is different than testing for the risk. When it comes to psychological illnesses, many people do not undergo screenings for illnesses merely because of a family history.

But in studies assessing risk for psychological conditions, risk is identified, but not always disclosed. This is particularly true in the case of schizophrenia. Reasons for this vary, but some believe that disclosure of risk could do more harm than good. Not all risk means onset of illness will ultimately occur, and not all people who are at high risk for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar or other mental health issues will be confident that their illness will be properly treated. So the question remains, is it better to disclose risk of schizophrenia or other illnesses, or not?

To answer this question, Roni G. Adler of the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand recently led a study that evaluated people’s anticipation and retrospective reaction to knowing their risk for specific health issues. In one study, Adler evaluated 114 college students and instructed them to detail how they would react if they found out they were at risk for diabetes, cancer, depression, or schizophrenia. Then, the participants noted whether they would want to find out their true risk for schizophrenia.

The results revealed that the anticipated reaction to having schizophrenia was equal to the anticipated reaction of having cancer, but less stressful than that for diabetes or depression. But even though over 80% of the participants expressed a desire to know their risk, only 11% were willing to have the testing done, perhaps due to fear. In a second study, 144 participants had saliva samples taken prior to and after receiving news of risk for these same illnesses. The participants were more distressed prior to finding out than after, regardless of the risk factor revealed.

Overall, Adler believes that disclosure is a personal choice and can negatively impact some people. “If strategies for disclosure are considered, these should accommodate the needs of individuals who wish not to know their risk status,” added Adler.

Alder, R.G., Young, J.L., Russell, E.I., McHardy, D.R., Linscott, R.J. (2013). The impact and desirability of news of risk for schizophrenia. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62904. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062904

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  • angie


    May 14th, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    I guess for me this is one of those questions that I just don’t have the answer to. I know that there is a part of me that would love to know and would jump at the chance to see if I am genetically at risk for almost anything . But there is also this other side of me that says no, this is something that I just don’t need to know. If I did know I would probably worry myself to death about it, so maybe my survival rate is actually much higher if I just don’t know. I mean, if this is something that is inevitable and there is no cure or prevention out there for it, I think most of me would say what good would knowing ahead of time do me? I think it would cause more anxiety and depression. But then again maybe it would force me to embrace all of the good things that I currently have. AAAHGHH! I don’t know- you can see I am so torn by this issue. I would love to hear what everone else thinks.

  • r snape

    r snape

    May 14th, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    there’s always going to be people who want to shut their eyes to facts and believe things will be better.but they won’t!if you’re at risk the best thing to do is to get tested.avoiding or leaving it out is not going to help!

  • nick


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:29 AM

    interesting cuz of what angelina jolie just put out yesterday

    i mean i thought she was so brave first to find out

    second to fix it

    and third to tell everybody about it

    i guess its kind of the same with mental health

    sometimes its better to fix a problem before it really gets started

    but at the exact same time it’s kind of hard to face it down and deal with it.

  • Gin-Gin


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:31 AM

    Mental health is pretty tricky. Not so sure I’d want to know what I was facing in the future in that regards. Too important to ignore though. Guess I’d want to know now that I think about it. Sure is scary though.

  • Gabriella


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    People should really pay attention to this because i mean depression just runs ramapant in my family adn i’m not talking about just being sad about something or having some bad days i’m talkign about a serious chemical depression that puts you out of life for awhile and in my family’s case ended lives.
    My great grandmother killed herself my grandmother was so depressed she had to be hospitalized and my dad had to miss aobut two months of work because he got so bad with it and because i knew my family’s history adn what to watch out for i caught onto mine pretty quick and was able to stop it before it got so advanced liek it did for the rest of muy family.
    So, i’d say know your history and what you may be dealing with and then be very intiuned to the symptoms and don’t be afraid to ask for help even though you feel like crawling under a rock and probably don’t ahve the energy to do anything it will be worth it i promise you.

  • Jase


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:38 AM

    I think the question posed is a very interesting one and worth taking a very close look at. Sometimes, if you think you could have an illness, you can make yourself crazy worrying about it. All of that time when you were perfectly fine, you have been creating stress that was unnecessary. On the other hand, knowledge is power, and the sooner you can pick up on a problem the easier it is to fix. So, I do not believe there is a simple, blanket answer for everyone on this topic. I think you have to do a lot of soul searching and determine the answer for yourself.

  • a.j. benton

    a.j. benton

    May 15th, 2013 at 1:39 AM

    asking college kids may not be the best. they hardly know what they want to eat for dinner much less what they want to do in terms of their mental health.

  • Sarah Beth

    Sarah Beth

    May 15th, 2013 at 1:41 AM

    Wow-major difference between who wants to know vs. who is willing to actually be tested!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Petra H

    Petra H

    May 15th, 2013 at 1:44 AM

    Isn’t it interesting how people are so afraid to find out something?
    Like in this situation when people were more scared before they knew their results even when the outcome wasn’t good?
    Fear is so interesting to me because it’s just all in your head.
    YOu can choose to feel it or not but most people just feel so powerless over fear.
    What if we all just decided not to be afraid anymore?
    Bad things and good things are going to happen whether we are afraid of them or not.
    So, let’s just decide to not be afraid.

  • Harold


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:46 AM

    so people are as afraid to have schizophrenia as cancer? i think i’m more scared to have have schizophrenia.

    at least with cancer you can tell where it is, what to do about it, and when it’s gone.

    with schizophrenia, it all seems to be just one big guessing game to me.

    it seems like it is impossible to tell exactly who has it and what is going to help.

    and it seems like it’s never really fixed.

  • Martina


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:48 AM

    Being faced with knowing you may be mentally ill is so scary. Like I really can’t think of anything scarier. So why would you want to know if it is in your future. Or not. Why wouldn’t you just want to live your life. Without being afraid of something that may be around the corner. Or years down the road. Just be glad for today. And that you are healthy today. Tomorrow can be its own concern. And worry.

  • Jaden


    May 15th, 2013 at 1:50 AM

    So would insurance pay for this screening? That is my big thing-MONEY!

  • grayson


    May 15th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    nope don’t wanna know

  • Clara m

    Clara m

    May 16th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    I have kind of come to the point in my life that whatever will be will be.
    There are some things I don’t need to know, and I think that this is one of those.
    Life is all about the curve balls and rolling with the punches, yes?
    If there is absolutely nothing that I could do to prevent this, then what would be the real point in knowing something like this ahead of time?

  • Carter


    May 18th, 2013 at 5:44 AM

    Not sure that I get why diabetes and depression would cause more heightened fear than cancer or schizophrnia- diabetes and depression seem Far more treatable to me than the other two!

  • LENA


    May 20th, 2013 at 5:09 AM

    Just because I might know I am at an elevated risk for developing a mental illness does not mean this would be a death sentence. Isn’t this kind of thinking what so many of us have been fighting against on this site and in many other ways? Mental illness doesn’t have to be viewed as this terible thing, because I think that when it is this only continues that cycle of incorrect thinking about this illness. There is help and there is hope, and this needs to be the message that we support, not that this will be the end of our lives.

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