Dr. Eleanor Murphy is a psychology research scientist and assistant professor of clinical psychology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Her current research involves genetics, psychology, mood and anxiety disorders, and how environment affects mental health. She also looks at the differences in mental health among racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans. In this article, Dr. Murphy explains her work and how genetics and mental health are related.
Q: Can you tell us more about your research?
A: I look at people who have suffered from depression and compare them with people who do not have depression. We try to see if there are any differences between the two groups of people in terms of their environments, their family histories, or their genetics. This comparison is not done between individual people, only with groups of people.
A person's environment, such as where they live, what they eat, and what their close relationships are like, is very important because it can influence the relationship between genetics and mental health disorders. Research has shown that depression and other mental illnesses are not caused by a single gene or a single aspect of a person's environment, but by many different genes working together and combining with different things in the environment.
For example, based on a person's age, sex, or the environment they grew up in or lived in, some genes may have more of an impact on health than other genes. Also, some genes are harmful, which means they can make someone more likely to become depressed, while other genes are protective, which means they can protect a person from becoming depressed. So if someone grows up in an unhealthy or stressful home, having harmful genes might not make a difference--this person will probably develop some form of depression. But if they have protective genes instead, then it might make a difference and they might not develop the mental health disorder or they might have a less serious form of the disorder.
Q: What would you say is the most important thing about African Americans being involved in your research?
A: Most of the research that has been done in this area has not included African Americans. It is important to include people from all races, ethnic backgrounds, and walks of life in health research. For example, certain things in a person's environment like racial discrimination might be more important in the mental health of African Americans than it would be of Whites. Because we know that the environment can affect the relationship between a person's genes and mental health, it's important to study this relationship in African Americans and other diverse groups of people.
For more Harlem Word articles with Dr. Eleanor Murphy, see the following.
Harlem Word: Dr. Eleanor Murphy talks about her research with African Americans, genetics, and mental health (Part I)