Depression is a mental disorder in which a person primarily experiences low moods and an aversion to activity. It can sometimes even lead to suicide. The causes of depression are varied and multifactorial. Listed below are some of the most prominent and research-backed risk factors and causes of depression:
I. Medical causes of depression
Research 1 shows that depression tends to run in families. If a first-degree or close relative, like a parent or a sibling, has experienced depressive disorders in the past, then it is highly likely that you may also develop depression. In fact, studies 2 suggest that the heritability for major depressive disorder (MDD), is about 40-50%.
Read More About Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) Here
2. Brain chemistry
People suffering from depression tend to have certain differences in their brain structure 3 and chemistry 4. Most of the time, these brain changes are caused at birth or by stress and negative developmental experiences. The brain changes are usually associated with:
- Reduced hippocampal volumes.
- Diminished activity of serotonin pathways
- Suppressed neuronal proliferation
- Increased amygdala volume
- Decreased volume of the frontal cortex
- Inflammatory pathways and neural circuits in our brain, etc.
3. Hormonal dysfunction
Changes in hormones such as thyroid, testosterone, estrogen etc. (Studies 5) are also associated with depression. These induce typical depressive symptoms like:
- Lack of motivation and focus
- Brain fog
- Sleep disturbances, etc.
4. Chronic illness
Individuals are more likely to develop depression if they are struggling with chronic, long-term, and fatal medical diseases 6, such as:
- Cardiovascular diseases (like stroke or heart attack)
- Kidney diseases
- Multiple sclerosis, amongst others.
Moreover, the medications 7 used to treat these complex health disorders frequently induce symptoms related to depression.
II. Psychological causes of depression
Certain psychological factors could also make a person prone to developing depression. Some of these factors include:
Research 8 confirms that certain personality traits enhance the vulnerability to depressive disorders, such as:
- Negative emotionality
- Self-directedness and persistence.
Read More About Narcissism Here
2. Cognitive distortions
A person’s mindset 9, thought patterns, and temperament can also lead to the development of depressive symptoms over time. The risk of depression is higher in individuals who are:
- Fatalistic in their life approaches
- Prone to negative thinking
- Inclined to ruminative and repetitive thinking tendencies
- Unable to let go of mistakes or difficult experiences
- More likely to jump to negative conclusions
- Prone to cognitive, attention, and memory biases
- Prone to poor decision-making, etc.
The association between stress and depression is bidirectional and, if untreated, both negatively impact a person’s psychological well-being. Research 10 shows that stressful events in our daily lives can increase our susceptibility to depression by changing our brain structure and function, and making us vulnerable to crippling psychological comorbidities.
Read More About Stress Here
4. Psychological disorders
Depression can also develop from other mental disorders, including:
- Substance use disorders (SUD)
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Mood disorders
- Gender dysphoria, etc.
Read More About Mood Disorders Here
III. Social causes of depression
The role of one’s social environment in the onset of depression cannot be ignored. Research 11 attributes the social causes of depression to:
Poverty and the stress associated with financial problems can be crucial factors in the development of depressive disorders (Research 12). In fact, depressive symptoms, such as guilt, suicidal ideation, etc. can arise due to:
- Financial difficulties
- Poor living conditions
- Unemployment, etc.
Recent studies 13 have also attributed the development of depression to discriminatory practices like:
- Ethnic segregation
- Xenophobic laws
A recent study 14 highlighted how racial prejudice worsens health outcomes in black communities, especially black women. Moreover, for years, experts 15 have attributed the common causes of depression and suicide in teenagers to school bullying and peer pressure.
Read More About Bullying Here
IV. Spiritual causes of depression
The main causes of depression related to spirituality and religion 16 include:
- Religious doubt
- Isolation from one’s own religious community
- Excessive superstition
- Fixation on religious concepts like ‘sins’, ‘virtues’, ‘forgiveness’, etc.
- Excessive self- and spiritual-reflection, etc.
V. Personal causes of depression
Depression can also be caused by certain personal choices or events in our personal life. Some of these factors have been discussed below:
An unhealthy lifestyle is strongly related to anxiety and depressive disorders (Research 17). These lifestyle habits may include:
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
- Excessive smoking and consumption of substances
- Disturbed sleeping patterns
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Prolonged unemployment
- Long-term work stress
- Lack of hobbies and recreational activities
- Other unhealthy habits like gambling, etc.
2. Interpersonal issues
Studies 18 confirm that dysfunction in interpersonal relationships is one of the main causes of depression in the youth. Depressive symptoms can be triggered by:
- Intimate partner violence
- Domestic abuse and violence
- Parental conflict
- Separation and divorce
- Chronic relationship issues
- Codependency or unhealthy attachment patterns
Read More About Codependency Here
3. Death and bereavement
The grief from the loss of a loved one can trigger depressive symptoms and compel a person to develop unhealthy coping habits like disordered eating, excessive sleeping, etc.
Many people develop a syndrome known as “complicated grief” 19, also known as prolonged grief disorder, that has the trademark symptoms of depressive disorders.
Read More About Grief Here
Recent studies 20 have shown that loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking. Loneliness is usually characterized by a lack of close friends or intimate partners. Loneliness and social isolation are some of the leading causes of depression in the elderly population, triggering instances of suicide.
Read More About Loneliness Here
5. Life changes
Certain life changes 21 are frequently linked to depression, including:
- Career changes
- Relocation, etc.
VI. Environmental causes of depression
Several other factors related to one’s environment can also cause depression, including:
A person’s family environment is one of the chief causes of depression. It involves factors related to control, conflict, or cohesion 22, or a history of abuse and early life stress (ELS). Some of these factors include:
- Dysfunctional family dynamics
- Pathological parenting
- Parental conflict
- Financial constraints
- Physical/ sexual/ emotional abuse
- Displacement, etc.
In fact, research 23 confirms that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are highly associated with untreated trauma, the development of chronic depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation.
2. Family history of mental disorders
One of the main causes of depression in women and men is a family history of mental disorders 24, including:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Personality disorders
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse disorders
- Conduct disorders, etc.
Read More About Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Here
Excessive smartphone, internet, and social media use are some of the major causes of depression in teens. In fact, studies 25 have found a strong correlation between depression and:
- Smartphone addiction
- Social media-propelled body-image issues
- Disrupted sleep, etc.
A 2019 study 26 found that among urban adolescents, about 71.4% of them who use the Internet for social networking are more vulnerable to developing stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts.
By gaining a clear understanding of what are the causes of depression and how these can affect our mindset, emotions, behaviors, and mood, we will be in a better position to seek help from a mental health professional. Understanding the causes can also enable doctors to conduct accurate diagnoses and devise customized and effective treatment plans for faster recovery.
At A Glance
- Depression is a mental disorder in which a person primarily experiences low moods and an aversion to activity.
- The causes of depression are varied, comprising medical, psychological, social, spiritual, personal, and environmental factors.
- Gaining a clear understanding of the different causes of depression can enable us to seek timely and proper treatment.
- Despite the variety of depression causes, it can be easily addressed by therapy, medication, and self-help strategies.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. What is the main cause of depression?
Stressful life events comprise the main cause of depression.
2. Is depression hereditary?
Depression is known to run in families. People with a family history of depression are more vulnerable to this psychiatric disorder.
3. How do I know if I’m depressed?
If you are experiencing low moods and frequent fatigue, as well as developing disinterest in hobbies and activities you loved before—you may be suffering from depression.
4. What is the main risk factor for depression?
Genetics is the main risk factor for depression.
5. What is the most common myth about depression?
The most common myth about depression is that it is temporary and will go away by itself. Common phrases like “It’s all in your head!” or “Depression is just a phase!” are commonly used to negate experiences with depressive symptoms. However, despite the common prejudice, depression is a clinical condition that requires medical attention.
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