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By On March 21st, 2019

New website wants to help you understand your genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder

A new website created by researchers at the University of New South Wales aims to help people better understand their hereditary or genetic risk of developing depression or bipolar disorder through an educational journey.

After creating a free account on the website at links.neura.edu, users start the process with a short anonymous questionnaire which explores a person and their family’s experiences with episodes of major depressive disorder (MDD) or bipolar disorder (BD) symptoms.

From there, the site walks users through educational information about the types of depression, how genetics and environmental factors contribute to mental illness, and the risk of developing MDD or BD if it runs in the family.

Importantly, the site also provides a number of prevention, coping, and support resources.

According to new research, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, the website may provide an important service which is currently being overlooked by other online support tools.

“There aren’t really any specialised genetic counsellors who cover psychiatric illnesses in Australia,” explained lead author of the study, professor Bettina Meiser.

“The vast majority of genetic counsellors do prenatal genetic counselling or cancer genetic counselling. So we identified a gap and for that reason we set up this website to cater for what we believe is a sizeable group of people.”

Notably, the site isn’t just a simple explainer of depression or bipolar disorder. It uses an analysis of how likely a person is to develop MDD or BD based on their family history to provide personalized information relevant for each user.

One positive result of the tool, according to Meiser, is that it helps to show people the risk of developing a mental illness when it is present in their family is likely lower than they perceive.

“The good news is that while there is certainly a genetic component to both MDD and BD, the chances of a child developing the same condition as their parents is considerably lower than fifty-fifty,” she says.

As an example, Meiser notes that a person with two or more close blood relatives living with bipolar disorder has an 18% chance of developing the condition in their lifetime or a 12% chance within the next year.

“Our study showed that many people with a family history of MDD or BD greatly overestimate the risk of passing on this condition to their children,” Professor Meiser says.

“We found that the Links website improved participants’ accuracy at estimating the future risk of bipolar disorder. So this is clearly a resource that can allay fears around this, and we believe it may also lead to decreased self-stigmatisation about having the condition.”

While the site shows that genetic risk for developing a mental health disorder is generally lower than people expect, it also reveals that environmental factors can play a big role in driving conditions like MDD or BD.

“All of us have a fixed predisposition to depressive disorders that our experience in the world adds to which can make us more vulnerable to depression – things like relationships, work, stress, socioeconomic backgrounds, our social networks and health,” Professor Meiser says.

At the end of the experience, the site then provides a number of tested prevention strategies, including therapy, mindfulness exercises, physical exercise, and getting an adequate amount of sleep.

“Our study showed that the Links website increased users’ intention to adopt psychological therapy as a preventative measure against depression,” Professor Meiser said.

“In fact, the increase in the proportion of individuals who intended to undergo or had undergone psychological therapy from before and after undertaking the online educational course was 22%.”

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