Staff Therapist Dr. Kenneth Covelman featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Home DNA Tests Can Lead to Shock and Trauma, But Mental Health Resources Are Scarce
October 28, 2021 | 1 in 5 Americans has spit in a tube and learned that their ancestors hailed from Greece or they have a cousin in Texas. But DNA tests can also dig up family secrets, such as an affair or insemination.
Gina Daniel took a MyHeritage DNA test in 2018 hoping to find out how much German ancestry she had. Turns out, she had none.
Instead, the test reported another user who shared 50% of her DNA — her actual biological father.
“This is an unexpected trauma on a recreational test,” that people often take for fun, said Daniel, 52.
The Camp Hill, Pa., resident spent days trying to mentally process what she had just learned. She was surprised by how much she was struggling with grief, loss, and anger.
“It completely changed everything for me,” she said.
Advances in genomic technology have allowed DNA testing to break free of academic and forensic labs and enter the home. As costs have dropped from triple-digits to $99 over the past five years, direct-to-consumer DNA tests have risen in popularity, becoming common holiday gifts and impulse purchases. One in five Americans has spit in a tube and learned that their ancestors hailed from Greece, they have a second cousin in Texas, or that they have high risk for breast cancer.
But DNA tests can also dig up closely guarded family secrets, such as an affair or an artificial insemination. And sudden discovery of a health condition can require new medical care — or the realization that there may not be a cure.
Receiving unexpected DNA test results can lead to a mental health crisis for many people, yet resources to help process these unique changes are scarce.
Daniel, a licensed clinical social worker, was working toward her Ph.D. when she received the shocking news.
“I threw out what I was [researching] and I focused on this, because I couldn’t find anything about it,” she said.
Testing the limits
Taking a direct-to-consumer DNA test can be deceptively easy. For many services, including AncestryDNA and 23andMe, customers spit in a tube and mail it in. Swirling around in the saliva are cells that contain microscopic strands of DNA. To determine a user’s ancestry, a fraction of this genetic material is sequenced to look for patterns that match DNA sequences in a database of people from different regions of the world.
That’s not all a DNA test can offer. Every person inherits half their DNA from one parent and half from the other. By measuring how similar the sequences in your DNA are to other users in the testing services’ databases, they can also identify potential relatives. If someone else shares 50% of the genetic markers tested, they’re probably a parent or even a sibling. Twenty-five percent suggests extended family, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or niece or nephew.
Other tests can also look for mutations in genes that are commonly seen in people with certain genetic diseases — for an extra fee. For example, it might identify mutations in the BRCA1 gene that increase risk of breast cancer.
But these tests aren’t perfect. DNA tests are only as good as their databases, and while these have ballooned in size in recent years, they still have limits. Ancestry results can change between subsequent tests or different services, and typically pinpoint the origins of people of European descent with more precision. Each service’s database can also limit the relatives that you find: AncestryDNA has around 18 million customers to search, while 23andMe has 12 million.
Similarly, consumer DNA tests that measure health risks offer much less precision than clinical tests administered by medical professionals because they test for a smaller set of mutations that aren’t relevant to people of all ethnicities. These are often skewed toward people of European descent because they are the participants in most medical research studies.
‘An unexpected trauma’
One to two months after submitting a DNA sample, customers receive their results. For some, this can feel like an earth-shattering moment.
Kara Deyerin could not look in a mirror for weeks after receiving her results.
All her life, she was proud of having a Black father and a white mother. She saw that heritage in her own curly hair and olive skin. But the test results now told a different story. She had no African ancestry, which didn’t just mean that her racial identity was shattered: it also meant that the person she had thought of as her father must not be her biological father. The person in the mirror was now a stranger to her.
“A discovery like this leads to an identity crisis,” said Deyerin, 47, who lives near Seattle. “[They] have to go back and re-look at [their] whole life and experiences, redefine them, re-understand them, and reshape them.”
There are a handful of Facebook groups that serve as support systems for people navigating these discoveries, where people commiserate as they wrestle with shocking new information and solicit advice on tracking down biological family members. These revelations are examples of misattributed parentage experience or “MPE,” which includes assisted conception, adoption, affairs, and one-night stands.