What Causes Depression… and How Common Is It?
There is no simple answer to what causes depression, but it is a common psychiatric disorder. In fact, between 15 to 20 percent of people experience an episode of major depression during their lifetime, no matter the person’s ethnicity, income, education, or marital status. Although depression can impact anyone, it is more common in teen girls and adult women than in teen boys and adult men.
Genes and Environment: The Stress-Vulnerability Model
A person’s risk for depression is the result of how their genes interact with our environment. This is called the stress-vulnerability model, which the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines as a theory that a “genetic or biological predisposition to certain mental disorders exists and psychological and social factors can increase the likelihood of symptomatic episodes.” In other words, genetic factors can create a greater likelihood of a person developing depression.
A family history of depression does not necessarily mean someone will develop major depression. However, those with a family history of depression have a slightly higher chance of becoming depressed at some stage in their lives. Although genetic research suggests that depression can run in families, genetics alone are unlikely to cause depression.
Environmental factors, such as a traumatic childhood or adult life events, may act as triggers for depression. Studies show that early childhood trauma and losses, such as the death or separation of parents, or adult life events, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, the loss of a job, retirement, serious financial problems, and family conflict, can lead to the onset of depression. Subsequent episodes are usually caused by more mild stressors, or even none at all.
There are other factors, as well.
Many scientists believe that biological factors cause depression, such as an imbalance in brain chemicals, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine. There are also theories that physical changes to the body may play a role, such as viral and other infections, heart attack, cancer, or hormonal disorders.
Personality style may also contribute to the onset of depression. People are at a greater risk of becoming depressed if they have low self-esteem, tend to worry a lot, are overly dependent on others, are perfectionists, or expect too much from themselves and others.
In other words, any one of these factors doesn’t necessarily cause depression, but those people who experience these factors are at a higher risk for developing depression. So answering a question like, “What causes depression?” doesn’t lead to a clear-cut answer.
But there are other questions that do lead to answers that can be helpful when supporting a loved one with depression. Questions like, “What sort of treatment options exist?” and “How can I best support my loved one?” can provide answers that will help you and your loved one deal with their diagnosis.
Don’t Feel Guilty…and Don’t Take It Personally
A lot of times, the question “What causes this?” is, for many of us who love someone with a significant diagnosis, another way of asking, “Is this my fault?” It’s hard not to assign blame or take on a burden of guilt when you love someone with a mental health issue. But just by reading this article, you are showing up for your loved one. Learn about their diagnosis, so you can better understand what they are going through. Understand treatment options, so you can help them come to informed decisions. Your support, love, and commitment to your loved one’s mental health and well-being will help them be successful in their treatment.
Beyond that, remember not to take your loved one’s condition, and their reactions to you or situations, personally. This is where it is important to remember that when your loved one isn’t engaging on a level you want them to engage on, that they can’t do it, rather than they won’t do it. Depression is an illness. Remembering that can change your interactions with your loved one.
But caring for and supporting a loved one with depression is hard. There are lots of practical ways you can help support your loved one, such as identifying early warning signs of relapse and tracking symptoms, identifying triggers to relapse and developing coping skills, identifying thoughts that increase depression, and finding appropriate treatment.
And as important as it is to not give up on your loved one, it’s just as important not to give up on yourself. Part of that can include doing those activities which you enjoy. For example, if your loved one is unable to attend a social event you’re looking forward to, as long as your loved one is safe, you should still go. It’s vital to take care of yourself – now, more than ever. Make sure you seek out your own support network and join our own private group here for connection to others in similar situations. You can’t take care of your loved one if you are exhausted, burned out, or frustrated. Self-care is not a luxury when you are a caretaker – it’s fundamental for your own health and well-being, and in your ability to help your loved one recover.
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