Depression is a very common problem. About 300 million people in the world have major depressive disorder, and if your parents or other close relatives have it, you might know how this disorder impacts people’s quality of life.
It can be difficult to watch your family members struggle with the symptoms of depression, and when such a problem is present in a family, people often become concerned about whether or not they could inherit it.
Is depression genetic? If someone in your family has clinical depression, how likely are you to face the same problem? If you also get diagnosed with it, will your symptoms be the same? Well, depression is a mental health disorder so there are many more factors at play compared to physical diseases.
People are more or less likely to develop depression depending on their lifestyle, self-care, childhood trauma, access to personal therapist online therapy, etc. In other words, environmental factors are really important.
Does it mean that you shouldn’t worry about genetics? Let’s consider depression and its causes in more detail.
Can Depression Be Genetic?
According to statistics, 10% of Americans deal with major depressive disorder at some point in their lives. Researchers have studied this disorder for many years, trying to figure out what exactly causes depression.
However, just like many other mental health problems, depression seems to be caused not by one factor but by a combination of different factors.
Back in the 1990s, scientists discovered a so-called depression gene — the 5-HTTLPR transporter gene. This gene transports serotonin, and this hormone plays an important role in our emotional health. While this gene offered a simple explanation of how depression develops, this explanation turned out to be not exactly correct.
In 2003, researchers were able to analyze more data and concluded that the serotonin transporter gene itself doesn’t lead to depression. It can only become a problem when combined with various environmental factors, such as trauma or excessive stress. At the same time, there is more than one gene linked to depression.
For instance, researchers discovered a clear connection between chromosome 3p25-26 and depression that runs in families. Over 800 families with a history of depression that participated in the study turned out to share the same chromosome. Therefore, genetic factors are impossible to ignore.
Numerous studies show that genetic predisposition to depression is a real thing. As many as 40% of people with depression have developed this disorder because of genetic factors, while the remaining 60% of the cases are linked to environmental factors. Research data also shows that people whose parents or siblings have depression are three times more likely to get this diagnosis than those who don’t have relatives with depression.
Studies prove that genetic factors contribute to the development of depression, but that doesn’t mean that this mental health disorder is caused by genes alone. For instance, it turns out that women are more susceptible to the genetic causes of depression than men. According to statistics, women have a 42% chance to inherit depression, while for men, there is only a 29% chance.
Understanding Genetic Causes of Depression
Everything that we inherit from our parents becomes part of us because of complex combinations of different factors rather than single genes. When researchers study various health problems, they look for changes in genes, which are called variants, and classify these changes based on the way they impact genes.
For example, variants are responsible for your eye color. Depending on variants in certain genes, people’s eyes may contain more or less melanin and therefore be more or less dark in color. You receive a unique combination of genes from each of your parents so there are two unique variants, the combination of which determines your eye color.
Quite often, people predict children’s eye color by looking at the parents’ eyes, but such predictions cannot be 100% accurate because the variants may act unexpectedly. For instance, even if both parents have blue eyes, there’s still a chance that their child’s eyes will be brown.
Eye color is rather a simple trait, so there’s no surprise that more complex things, like genetic depression, are even more difficult to predict, as there are many more factors that can come into play, and not all of them are genetic.
If you have a genetic variant associated with depression, it means that you’re more likely to develop depression, but it doesn’t mean a 100% probability. Researchers have already identified many genetic variants associated with depression, but people with these variants may not develop depression, and the absolute majority of researchers agree that there’s no single gene that would cause this disorder.
Moreover, there might be many variants related to major depressive disorder that we just haven’t discovered yet. Sometimes, researchers identify genetic variants but cannot say whether or not they have any effects. In fact, up to 90% of human DNA remains unused — these are just genes that were being added to our DNA throughout millions of years of evolution, and most of them are no longer useful.
There are many myths about depression, so it’s important to keep in mind that complex questions are likely to lead to complex answers, and explaining depression based on one factor, whether it be genetic or environmental, won’t let you see the bigger picture.
We’ve already mentioned that, while genetic factors may contribute to the development of major depressive disorder, people are more or less likely to develop it depending on various environmental factors.
Here are the key environmental factors that determine how likely you are to have depression, as well as how severe the symptoms can be and how well you might respond to treatment.
Depression is a mental health problem, so emotional problems can be no less or even more important than genetics. Research data demonstrates that depression is particularly common among people who experienced parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse, bullying, or chronic stress.
Our childhood experiences are especially important when it comes to our mental health because children are just developing their sense of self, and their negative experiences may still impact them even when they grow up.
Therefore, if you’re concerned about genetic predisposition to depression and the impact of your genes on your children’s mental health, it’s important to make sure that your kids grow in an emotionally safe environment and receive the necessary emotional support from you.
Certain medical conditions may also make a person more likely to develop major depressive disorder. For instance, sleep disorders and thyroid diseases, along with some types of cancer, are associated with a higher probability of developing depression, as well as other mental health problems.
Research data also shows a strong link between depression and substance use. Depression can be a direct result of substance use disorder, but such a connection works both ways because people with depression may turn to substance use in an attempt to cope with its symptoms.
While alcohol and drug use might look like a short-term solution, it’s important to keep in mind that it may only worsen the symptoms of depression in the long term. Quite often, people choose substances because they don’t receive enough support, so it’s important to know how to help a depressed friend or family member.
The stigma associated with mental health and the feeling of isolation can make a person feel like they are left alone with their problem and no one cares about them. As a result, depression may become much more severe.
Researchers also found out that poor nutrition is associated with a higher rate of depression. Stay away from ultra-processed foods, including sugary products and sauces, and make sure that you get enough vitamins and other important nutrients. Vegetables, nuts, and fruits are definitely better options for your overall health, including your mental health, than fast food.
Is depression genetic? The answer is yes… and no.
While genetic factors can make you more likely to develop major depressive disorder, there is no single gene that would cause it, and everything depends on the combination of genes that you have. If your close relatives have depression, you might be more likely to face the same problem, but you may also not develop depression unless certain environmental factors come into play.
If you have a family history of depression, that doesn’t mean that you will develop it, and only depression screening can help you understand whether or not you have this disorder.
Mental health is not only about genes but also lifestyle and environment. Therefore, if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, don’t hesitate to seek professional help and support.
While in-person therapy might not be a convenient solution for people with tight work schedules, online therapy platforms like Calmerry allow you to talk to a licensed therapist with no need to commute to their office. Learn more about therapy so that you will know what to expect from your first session.
Depression may worsen when untreated, so asking for help is the best solution. If you have suicidal thoughts or consider self-harm, please immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.