Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: A Lethal Inheritance

I recently had the opportunity to read Victoria Costello's new book, A Lethal Inheritance: A Mother Uncovers the Science behind Three Generations of Mental Illness. As I mentioned in her guest post, Costello is a noted science journalist and author of several books focusing on psychology and parenting. Perhaps equally important, however, is the fact that she is the mother of two boys (now adults) who have struggled with mental illness, as has she. The book is her memoir of her family's experience with major mental illness, including schizophrenia and depression, but it's also so much more than that. As she and her sons experience emotional and psychological ups and downs, find treatment, and eventually stabilize, Costello also recounts her discovery of a genetic predisposition towards mental illness in her family tree. Using her family as a case study, Costello is able to accomplish two notable things with this book that I think make it applicable and compelling to almost any reader.

First, she weaves relevant aspects of mental health research into the narrative in a seamless and captivating way. Many times books that try to recount scientific information or studies do so in a rather dry way, but Costello is able to incorporate a lot of research into her story in a way that makes you even more interested in the topic. Some of the most fascinating research discussed in the book is that of gene-environment interactions. The idea that aspects of your environment (e.g., stress, exposure to certain substances or events) can actually influence how or if a gene you have in your DNA is expressed is so interesting and complex. One example of this type of research is that focusing on adolescent marijuana use and risk of psychotic symptoms. It turns out that quite a bit of research has shown that marijuana use increases the risk of psychotic symptoms in all adolescents, but for those with a genetic predisposition to mental health problems, it increases the risk dramatically. Of course, many adults and adolescents may not know if they have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, but I think this is still the type of scientific research that the public needs to know. 

Costello explains many of these types of gene-environment interactions in order to illustrate factors that put individuals at risk for mental illness, particularly those with a genetic predisposition. 

Second, in this book Costello is able to point out possible risk factors, preventative measures, and some of the potential treatment options available for mental illness. Perhaps the most clearly stated factor discussed is that of parental mental illness, particularly depression. Throughout the book Costello describes how she had experienced symptoms of depression for years but had not sought out treatment until her sons began to experience mental health problems as well. I think this is all too common for parents, especially mothers. We have a tendency to want to put our children's health above our own, but as Costello points out, in the case of mental illness, this approach is ineffective and potentially harmful. Through her investigation she found research illustrating that children of depressed mothers are much more likely to experience depression or anxiety by adolescence, especially if another close relative has a history of depression. On the other hand, when depressed mothers were effectively treated, their children were more likely to recovery themselves (if already experiencing depression) or not experience symptoms at all. 

Costello also offers practical advice for parents to help them prevent or see the warning signs of mental illness in their children. Most of these come directly from her experience with her sons and the current scientific research, including suggestions for monitoring and documenting your child's behavior or any mental health issues and mapping out (as best you can) a mental health family history.

Personally, I think this book is a good read for any parent, even if there is no history of mental illness in your family. If there happens to be such a history of illness in your family, then I would suggest that this book is a must-read. This book offers wonderful insight and advice but in a deeply personal way.
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