Risk factors for depression

While anyone is at risk for depression, certain factors can increase your likelihood of developing the mental illness.

These include:

Family history
Having an immediate family member who suffers from depression increases your risk, and depression does seem to have a genetic component. However, the exact manner in which depression is passed on through the genes isn’t yet fully proven or understood.

Gender
Women are two times more likely to suffer from depression than men – a result of psychological, socio-economic and biological factors.

Early childhood experiences
Traumatic experiences during childhood have been linked to an increased risk of depression. These experiences include:

  • The death of a parent
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Divorce
  • Exposure to violence

Stress
Ongoing stress (e.g. as a result of divorce, unemployment, financial strain, illness or strained relationships) is a common cause of depression in adults.

Chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, as well as reduced levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine. These changes play a role in depression.

Abuse
Victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse have a much greater risk of suffering from depression.

Researchers have found specific changes in and around the hippocampus in the brains of people who were maltreated or neglected in childhood. It’s believed that high levels of stress hormones associated with maltreatment damages the hippocampus (the emotional centre of the brain), making these individuals more susceptible to depression later in life.

Depression may only manifest many years after the abuse occurred.

Serious illness
Being diagnosed with a serious illness, particularly a terminal disease such as cancer or a chronic disease such as diabetes, may trigger depression.

Alcoholism
Alcohol is a depressant that affects the chemistry of the brain, and depression and alcoholism often go hand in hand. We also know that self-harm and suicide are much more common in people with alcohol problems.

Major life events
Significant life events such as moving house, changing careers, graduating, getting divorced, losing a loved one, or exposure to an extremely violent or traumatic event can increase your risk of depression.

Reviewed by psychiatrist Dr Matthew Mausling, Life Kingsbury Hospital, Claremont. October 2018.

Read more:

- Depression course & prognosis

- Treating depression

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