Family Study in Psychology: Examples & Overview

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Family studies play an important role in determining how mental disorders will manifest. Learn more about family studies in psychology from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is a Family Study?

Over the past few decades, psychologists and other mental health professions have become more mindful of the role that genetics play in the development of mental disorders. Family studies provide a way for professionals to further examine the relationship between genetics and mental disorders. The main purpose of a family study in psychology is to answer one question: Is the mental disorder familial? In other words, Does it run in the family?

The underlying assumption is that if a certain trait is influenced by our genes, then close relatives (i.e., siblings, our children) should resemble each other in that specific trait. This means that if one family member has a mental disorder that is caused by genetic factors, his or her close relatives should also possess similar risks for the same mental disorder. In family studies, individuals who possess a certain trait or mental disorder are identified and their family members are assessed to see if they possess the same trait or are at risk for developing the same mental disorder.

It is important to note that family studies can be used to determine if a disorder is familial; however, they cannot be used to determine how much is due to the environment and how much is due to genetics since family members tend to share both.

Examples of Family Studies

Family Studies on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The Iowa OCD family study was conducted by Dr. Donald Black and colleagues in the early 1990s. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that causes a person to have obsessive and repetitive thoughts and behaviors. They found that having a close relative with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) does not increase the risk of having OCD (as compared to individuals who do not have a close relative with OCD). In 2013, Black and other colleagues reanalyzed the original data from the Iowa OCD family study and found that OCD is in fact familial. Specifically, close relatives of people with OCD are more likely to have OCD than individuals without OCD close relatives. Another study conducted by Dr. Gerald Nestadt and his colleagues also support the familial risk of OCD.

Family Studies on Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

A study conducted in 2013 showed that close relatives of people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), either with or without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have an increased risk of developing ADHD and PTSD when compared to those who do not have close relatives with either mental disorder. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a condition with symptoms of inattention, impulsiveness and hyperactivity that interferes with daily life and begins in childhood. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder can occur after a traumatic event, resulting in debilitating symptoms that increase over time and prevent a person from living a normal life.

Family Studies on Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia

Family studies conducted on bipolar disorder, which is a mood disorder resulting in serious high and low moods, revealed that close relatives of individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder have a higher risk of several mental disorders, including schizoaffective disorder, bipolar I and II, and recurrent unipolar disorder. However, this did not result in an increase in schizophrenia risk.

Family studies conducted on schizophrenia, which is a brain disorder resulting in distorted thinking and perception, revealed that close relatives of individuals with schizophrenia also have a higher risk for schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and recurrent unipolar disorder. The 1993 Roscommon family study found a higher risk of developing schizotypical, avoidant, and paranoid personality disorder in individuals who have close relatives that are suffering from schizophrenia. However, they did not have a higher risk for bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.

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