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Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 02:15 GMT 03:15 UK


Scientists predict acceptance of mental illness

Mentally ill people face much discrimination

Genetic advances will reduce the stigma of mental illness, predict scientists.

They say the more the public understands about the science of specific mental health problems, the more they will accept those affected.

Although experts say as many as one in four people are affected by mental illness, many face discrimination, isolation and even attacks from members of the public.

They say the media spotlight on community care killings has contributed to general fear of the mentally ill.

Research shows that they have the highest unemployment rates of any disabled group.

Unemployment rates for the disabled generally are 21%, compared with 37% for the mentally ill.

Alzheimer's disease

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Peter McGuffin, from the Institute of Psychiatry, and Neilson Martin, from the University of Wales College of Medicine, say they believe medical advances will help to put better treatments on the market and will make discrimination a thing of the past.

They cite the example of Alzheimer's disease where they say medical advances have led to greater public acceptance of the disorder.

Although they acknowledge that mental illness is not only affected by genetics but also by environmental factors, they say scientific advances such as DNA testing may be able to help predict how a person will respond to a particular treatment.

For example, it may show whether they are likely to develop certain side effects.

They say research on identical twins and people who have been adopted will help enable scientists to work out which traits are due to shared genes and which are due to shared environment or a combination of both.

Research already conducted suggests responses to certain antipsychotic drugs may be influenced by genes, they say.

However, they admit that the genetic basis of many common mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, may be too complex for a general predictor test to be developed.

However, they say children who have a schizophrenic parent have been shown to be 10 times more at risk of developing the condition themselves than a member of the general public.

Those who have a schizophrenic sibling are 16 times more at risk. If both parents have schizophrenia the risk increases to 40 times the average.

Risk factors

The scientists believe that, as genetic testing becomes more accurate, it will be possible to screen families where there is a higher than average risk.

"This could have obvious benefits in advising relatives on avoiding risk factors," they say.

"Such as the recreational use of cannabis in the case of schizophrenia, or more controversially in attempting prevention with a low dose antipsychotic agent."

However, mental health charity Mind is cautious about the scientists' predictions.

It believes that evidence on genetic effects on mental health is inconclusive and that environmental factors play a big role.

"Our concern is if someone thinks genetics are the only answer to mental health problems," said a spokeswoman.

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