Causes of Depression

Causes of Depression

Common Causes of Depression

Depression is one of the most prevalent adverse mental health conditions in the United States. Over 6% of the adult population will experience an episode of major depression in a given year. The illness is directly responsible for billions of dollars per year lost in the overall economy from missed work days and wages. Even worse, the consequences of untreated depression can be felt for years to come. It’s possible for someone to cancel plans, miss important dates, or destroy personal relationships while suffering from depression. Once the black cloud lifts, decisions made while impaired are often irrevocable, and the negative effects felt for years.

Who is at-risk for developing depression?

While there is no single cause of depression, the scientific and medical communities have determined that genetics, neuropsychology, traumatic and stressful situations, and inherent personality traits can all trigger depression. Genetics play as high as a fifty percent role in the chance of developing the disorder, and environmental factors contribute the remaining half. The following is a list of common risk factors for depression:

  • Having a close blood relative with the disease—brother, sister, or a parent
  • Having a perfectionistic, extremely realistic, or negative personality. Studies have shown that a little bit of self-delusion can actually protect individuals from depression
  • Experiencing trauma or abuse, or death of a loved one
  • Living in a northern climate, or locale that has low exposure to sunlight
  • Being female—women are twice as likely to develop depression than men over a lifetime

What can cause depression?

The causes of depression are dependent on the type of depression the individual is diagnosed with. Depression is an illness that doesn’t discriminate; men, women, children, adults, and people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds can all develop the disorder. Keeping in mind the risk-factors above, anyone who has those factors is at an increased risk of getting depression at some point in their lives.

For example, in postpartum depression and PMDD, fluctuating, or plummeting hormonal levels play an active role in causing the disease. In postpartum, the stress of caring for a newborn and sleep deprivation are contributing factors. Furthermore, women without adequate support during their postpartum period are at increased risk of developing the disorder.

Major clinical depression can be triggered by seasonal changes, known as SAD. Living in a northern climate, or experiencing long, cold, dark winters can greatly increase the risk of falling into a depressive episode.

Those who experience trauma or the sudden death of a loved one can develop depression. It is normal for people to experience a period of grief or mourning, but for some, things can devolve into something more serious. It is recommended that if grief does not start to lessen after several weeks, depression may be setting in and it is best to speak with a licensed therapist.

The stress of surviving a trauma and dealing with the aftermath of one can trigger depression. Individuals who experience these kinds of situations are also at-risk of developing a stress or anxiety disorder, such as PTSD. Fortunately, the medications used to treat depression can also lessen the symptoms of anxiety and stress disorders.

Individuals who are subjected to repeated abuses, especially during childhood, are at very high risk of experiencing depressive episodes during their lifetimes. Interpersonal strife can also trigger an episode in an otherwise at-risk individual.

Major events in one’s life can trigger a depressive episode. While the event doesn’t need to be negative, major life events and the stress associated with them can cause the disorder to manifest.

Certain physical health conditions can cause depression. People with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, dementia, or congestive heart failure can suffer from it. Oftentimes, depression is also a part of the physical disease or can be triggered by the stresses of living with a chronic illness.

A poor diet can cause depression. Studies show that individuals low in omega-3 fatty acids or an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 acids are more susceptible to the illness. Diets high in sugar can also cause it. People who are under extreme stress or enduring major life events may not get the right nutrition they need, further compounding their risk of depression.

Drug and alcohol abuse can also cause depression. Furthermore, there are certain legal prescription medications that can cause it. Antibiotics, corticosteroids, and some forms of birth control can trigger depression in susceptible individuals.

Unfortunately, no one major cause or risk-factor has been found to cause depression, but a myriad of life events, stressors, biological, and neurological factors contribute to an individual’s risk. Depression and its causes and treatment options have been studied for centuries, and the first known recordings of ‘melancholy’ can be attributed to the ancient Greek historian Hippocrates.

Fortunately, science and medicine have come a long way since the days of the ancient Greeks, and there are numerous treatment options available. A combination of therapy, medication, and deep-brain stimulation techniques have been found to be efficacious in the treatment of the illness.

With help from family, friends, doctors, and therapists, patients can learn what their specific triggers are. In addition, customized pharmacological maintenance plans and ongoing therapy sessions can all help individuals recover from their initial depressive episode and go on to live a life free from the disease. Most who seek treatment never experience another relapse, and depression, regardless of the individual and the type they have, is a highly treatable illness.

What are the types of depression?

Major Depressive Disorder (clinical depression)

Major Depression is defined as having depression symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks. These symptoms interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life in general. A person can experience this once in a lifetime, but it’s more typical to occur several times.

In any year, over 16 million Americans suffer from this. It’s characterized by the following:

  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in activities normally enjoyed
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death and suicide
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It often begins in late fall/early winter then ends during spring or summer. Women and younger adults are more prone to this disorder, and it takes at least two years of recurring, season-based symptoms to be diagnosed. Some doctors think too much melatonin and too little vitamin D are responsible.

Doctors attribute SAD to changes in the body’s circadian rhythm. This means that light – or lack of it – triggers changes that can lead to depression. It’s quite common in far northern and far southern regions but can be treated with light therapy. The term Seasonal Affective Disorder was first coined in 1984.


Dysthymia is characterized as a low-grade, long-lasting depression. Dysthymia can last for years, and sufferers are sometimes characterized as negative or pessimistic people when in fact they are suffering from a serious, yet treatable, clinical disorder.

Perinatal Depression / Postpartum Depression

Women with perinatal depression may experience full-blown major depression during pregnancy or after delivery (known as postpartum depression). It can affect one in four women and even one in eight men. The difference there lays in the fact that women’s depression is triggered by changes in hormones whereas for men it’s brought on by environmental changes and shifting roles. Postpartum depression is found across the globe, with rates varying from 11% to 42% Around 3% to 6% of women will experience depression during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. About 1 in 750 mothers will have postpartum depression with psychosis, and their risk is higher if they have had postpartum episodes in the past.

Psychotic Depression

Psychotic Depression is a type of depression that occurs when the patient has severe depression alongside a form of psychosis including delusions or hallucinations. The concept of psychosis was introduced in 1841. At the time, neuroses referred to all diseases of the nervous system, but it was only in 1841 that C. Cannstatt identified it as the psychic manifestation of a disease of the brain.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

Suffered by up to 10% of women who are of childbearing age, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is a severe form of PMS and includes depression, sadness, anxiety, or irritability. It generally strikes the week prior to a period. Scientists think that taking antidepressants two weeks before a period, or through the month, can be extremely effective. Symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or self-critical
  • Severe feelings of stress or anxiety
  • Mood swings, often with bouts of crying
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Food cravings or binging

There was a lot of debate amongst doctors about the validity of including this as an official form of depression; Sally Severino, a psychiatrist, argued that because PMDD symptoms were more prevalent in the US, it was a culture-bound syndrome and not a biological condition.

Bipolar Depression

The hallmarks of Bipolar Depression are wild swings in mood and energy. You can be diagnosed with this after just one bout of mania. It gets worse without treatment but can be treated with antipsychotic meds, mood stabilizers, and therapy. Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, insomnia, and lethargy
  • Unexplained aches, pains, and psychomotor agitation
  • Hopelessness and loss of self-esteem
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Indecision and disorganization

Bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide and has a lifetime prevalence of about three percent in the general population. It has quite a history too. The basis of what we currently think of as bipolar illness can be traced back to the 1850s when Jean-Pierre Falret presented a description to the Academy of the Paris Psychiatric Society in which he mentioned “circular insanity.”

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression symptoms affect the individual on the physical, emotional, and behavioral level. People experiencing depression will have varied symptoms affecting their behaviors, emotions, and physical being.  Because symptoms vary greatly depending on the individual in question, treatment must be customized.

Below are some signs and symptoms of depression:

  • Overwhelming feelings of guilt, sadness, or worry
  • Irritability or extreme anger
  • Feelings of emptiness or emotional apathy
  • Rumination
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Brain fog
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
  • Sleeping too much or too little; insomnia
  • Fatigue, lack of motivation or alertness
  • Lethargy, or slowed speech and movement
  • Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol
  • Anhedonia, or the loss of pleasure and enjoyment in the usual activities
  • Random aches and pains
  • Eating too much or loss of appetite
  • Rapid changes in weight, either gaining or losing
  • Increased risk of infection (upper respiratory)
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Self-harm
  • Missing important events, either refusal to attend or forgetting to attend
  • Work or school performance suffering
  • Social isolation or withdrawal

Sometimes people who suffer from depression will try to escape from and alleviate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol. This is known as self-medicating in the medical field. As many as half of those currently enrolled in drug rehabilitation programs in the United States have a comorbid mental health condition.

Alcohol dependence and abuse are especially dangerous for depression sufferers, increasing their risk of suicide and self-harm. As many as 70% of people who commit suicide in the United States are under the influence of alcohol. Furthermore, depression is a frequent withdrawal symptom from alcohol dependence.