Mental Health and the family

The Question

Several generations of one family pose together for a photoWhich factors affect the transmission of mental health risk or resilience within families and across generations?

This project aims to examine the contributions of both individual and shared (family) factors to one’s risk of mental health conditions and to examine how mental health is transmitted within families and between generations.

Principal Investigator: Dr Matthew Iveson


Dr Matthew Iveson describes the project: 


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Mental Health in older adults

Baby looking at older manOlder adults are particularly at risk of mental health conditions (e.g. depression) due to the challenges faced in older age, such as bereavement and disability.

Previous research has demonstrated that the risk of developing mental health conditions in later life can be predicted by factors across the life course, such as childhood and adult socioeconomic circumstances [1].

Impact on the family

While mental health conditions undoubtedly affect the well-being of older adults, previous work has also highlighted the potential impact on close family members. For example, children with depressed parents have been shown to be more likely to be diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives [2]. Similarly, individuals with depressed spouses are also at increased risk of depression [3].

An older women and her daughterThese family effects may be somewhat explained by shared family circumstances. For example, the socioeconomic disadvantage that affects depression risk in parents may be the same disadvantage which affects depression risk among children later in their lives [4].

Thus, the same risk factors that affect older adults may also affect their close family.


Why Scotland?

Scottish Mental Survey 1947

Scottish FlagScotland is the one of the only countries in the world to have tested the childhood mental ability of a whole population of people (71,000 people) who were born in the same year (1947). [Read more about The Scottish Mental Survey 1947 (SMS1947)]

This measure of childhood mental ability helps to gives researchers a much richer picture of an individual's early-life circumstances, and has already been shown to be an important predictor of later-life health and wellbeing [5].

Access to routinely collected data

Scotland is at the forefront of ‘big data’ developments.
Much of the routine data, collected about Scottish residents (including some health records and census records), is being made available in a secure and anonymized way, to authorized researchers, to tackle large-scale problems.

This is only possible thanks to specialized infrastructure which ensures the privacy of individuals, while still allowing researchers to combine and analyze data in a secure way.  [Read more at What about security and privacy?].

The availability of these population-wide databases makes Scotland an ideal place to conduct research which tackles some of the most difficult of problems facing society.


Our project

Large group of cohort members on the stairs of Assembly Hall, EdinburghThis project will combine research records (SMS1947) with routinely-collected health and administrative records to create a large, anonymized, nationally-representative, cross-generational dataset with detailed measures and predictors. These data will offer an unusually valuable resource that will link life-course information to important human and societal outcomes such as health and social support and care.

We will do this by extending the existing data linkage studies to include the spouses and children of the SMS1947 participants. This will allow us to construct ‘family units’ and ask questions about the importance of family circumstances to mental health risk.



  1. Hatch SL et al. Soc Sci Med 64, 2285-2296, (2007).
  2. Weissman MM. JAMA Psychiatry 73, 197-198, (2016).
  3. Zeng Y et al. EBioMedicine 14, 161-167, (2016).
  4. Melchior M et al. J Affect Disord 137, 165-169, (2012).
  5. Deary, IJ et al. J Pers Soc Psychol 86, 130-147, (2004).

Useful Links

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