Nature or Nurture?


I have just watched the Kerry Katona documentary on catch up for Channel 5, it’s called ‘My Secret Past’ and is worth a watch. I have long believed that my battle with mental illness is a combination of the two, that I have a genetic predisposition but that trauma I experienced during my childhood triggered it off. I guess it’s no different to someone having a genetic predisposition to heart disease but whether that person eats a fry up for breakfast then sits on their backside everyday makes a difference to whether they trigger those heart problems off or not.

I didn’t know I had any mental illness in my family until after I became unwell. My father was absent from my life for a couple of decades and I had no contact with his side of the family but it now turns out that I have an uncle with Bipolar Affective Disorder and an aunt who took her own life. My maternal grandmother talks of a relative who was taken off to the hospital on the hill with ‘religious mania’ which ironically is the same psychiatric hospital I spent months in when I was unwell. She has mentioned another relative with ‘milk fever’ which upon further discuss appears to be postnatal psychosis but I’m not sure which generation this was in.
You see the genetic link was there, maybe if I had known about this before I could have treated my own mental health before it crashed at my feet?
I have written in this blog about my experiences of trauma in childhood, of sexual abuse, rape and then emotional abuse in my teens. I have written about how therapy helped me to reach a point where I am able to say out loud ‘I have no shame about my childhood experiences’, How I can go for long periods of time without thinking about my past now. When I am low it is something which I dwell on along with other negative aspects of life but then that is the nature of depression that cognitions become negative. I have wondered if I hadn’t had those experiences would I be free of mental illness but over time accepted that I will never know the answer to this question. To stop asking oneself this question is a key factor, in my humble opinion, to life long contentment.

The next logical question for me as a parent is if ‘nature’ ie genetics is the predominant feature then have I passed this on? Kerry Katona touched on this issue too, she worried that she will pass on her mental illness to her children. Let’s face it it’s not the legacy anyone dreams of leaving their children is it? I hope that by giving my child the stable home I never had I have reduced her risk considerably. I accept however that 1 in 4 adults will experience mental illness and hope that as I am now training as a mental health nurse I will have the skills and
knowledge to offer unconditional love and support should she need it. If I had one wish or a magic wand maybe I would use it to ensure my daughter never directly experiences mental distress as I have. Mama bear wants to protect her cub as always!

I wonder in hindsight if when I was 16 and first prescribed medication for my mood if someone had asked me why I felt the way I did would that have made a difference to the severity of my condition later in life? Again a question I will never be able to answer but I have accepted this is the case. I can hope however that this would not be the case two decades further on, that if a child sought help now they would be offered listening before medication.

Kerry Katona has lived her battles with mental illness out in the public eye and I don’t envy her that. I remember watching her on this morning and comparing how I was when I took Quitiapine when I slurred my words and how keen I was to get off it as soon as that episode was in remission. I felt sad for her that psychotropic medication was not accepted as the reason for her presenting that way during the interview that day, she looks genuinely sad watching it back. I look back at family photos with that same sadness as I see the blankness in my eyes.

I have mentioned before in this blog how there is a common assumption that childhood trauma leads to personality disorder and it does not always. Rough figures I have come across for my studies suggest 1 in 20 children experience sexual trauma in childhood and 1 in 10 of these children go on to develop a personality disorder as an adult. That leaves a vast number who still may experience symptoms of mental illness or may live life without major issue. We are all products of our experiences, some positive and some negative, that’s life. That’s how we develop emotionally as human beings.

Like Kerry I have moved on beyond the trauma I experienced and like Kerry I have been successful in my life. I am a wife and mother, I have had an amazing career which is now about to start again as I am due to qualify as a mental health nurse in summer 2014.
Life experiences can shape us but we can rip up that mould and shape out own future if we want, and that includes those of us living with mental illness. If Kerry Katona and I can do it so can you…

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