A new study published in Psychiatry Research investigated the consequences of discovering that your biological father was not whom you believed to be your father through direct-to-consumer DNA kits. The findings suggest that those who discover a misattributed paternity are more likely to report more symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic.
Several factors contributed to the severity of these symptoms, including family reactions, personal reactions, demographics, and whether or not their relationship with their mother declined after the discovery. This research sheds light on the potential consequences of easily accessible DNA testing.
As of 2020, 30 million people have taken direct-to-consumer DNA kits. These tests sometimes reveal misattributed paternity. This phenomenon is known as a non-paternity event in genealogy, and it can lead to various emotional and mental reactions in those who discover such findings.
Up to 5% of direct-to-consumer DNA test takers discover an unexpected biological father or mother. Prior studies investigating the consequences of an non-paternity event found that individuals reported feelings of profound grief and loss, along with a destabilization of identity. They also described feeling confused, lonely, and afraid.
Many people felt ashamed and wanted to keep the information secret, even though the situation was not their fault. In addition, when revealing their discoveries and the subsequent emotional toll it took, many were told they were being too dramatic.
In their new study, Chen Avn and colleagues examined non-paternity events with the hypothesis that discovering a misattributed father in adulthood would cause various psychiatric problems. The study also assumed that the factors associated with the discovery, such as demographics, subsequent interactions with family members, and personal reactions, would influence these symptoms.
Participants were selected from the “DNA NPE Friends” Facebook group, which included 6,500 members with unexpected paternity or maternity. The study was limited to individuals who discovered unexpected paternity and did not include cases of adoption, leaving a sample size of 731 participants. Participants filled out a questionnaire containing demographic assessments, questions regarding their non-paternity event, and clinical scales to assess depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.
The researchers found that non-paternity events were associated with higher levels of anxiety, panic disorder, and depression as measured on clinical scales. In addition, a number of secondary factors affected participant mental health, including demographics and family reactions to the discovery. Being older and being in a relationship were significant predictors of better outcomes. Accepting the discovery and being able to discuss it openly with friends were also found to be protective factors.
After discovery, relationships between mother and child were found to be critical factors in mental health. Participants whose relationship with their mothers had become markedly worsened were found to be worse off in all clinical scales compared to those whose relationship did not worsen, improve, or remained the same. Fathers’ reactions were clinically negligent, and half-siblings, whether they had been known or not, did not impact clinical outcomes.
The relationship between the biological father and mother played an important role. Children who were conceived in romantic circumstances or assisted by a donor sperm had better mental health outcomes than children conceived by rape or prostitution. The study indicates that people want to have a story about how they came into existence and that the story’s tone can have a significant impact on their sense of self, family relationships, and sense of parenthood.
The research team acknowledged some limitations to their study. Utilizing a Facebook group marketed to support those experiencing non-paternity events may result in a sample already prone to mental health distress. In addition, those using a DNA kit may place more value on genetic relationships than those with no interest. Finally, 89% of the sample was female; consequently, the experience of those identifying as male is still relatively unknown.
This study offers insight into the psychiatric implications of discovering an non-paternity event as an adult. Findings suggest that discovering an non-paternity event in adulthood can negatively impact mental health; however, certain protective factors may be able to mitigate the effects. The study highlights the importance of a child’s relationship with the mother and the nature of that relationship between mother and biological father.
The study, “Discovering your presumed father is not your biological father: Psychiatric ramifications of independently uncovered non-paternity events resulting from direct-to-consumer DNA testing,” was authored by Chen Avni, Dana Sinai, Uri Blasbalg, and Paz Toren