Why do some people experience depression while others don't—even when under the same circumstances? Figuring out what makes someone more prone to clinical depression continues to be one of the most pressing questions for researchers and mental health professionals.
Although researchers don’t have an exact answer as to why some people are more prone to depression than others, there's likely more than one causative factor. Research has implicated everything from physical and chemical differences in the brain to social and environmental risk factors.
The complexity of depression is what makes it a challenging condition to diagnose and treat. Understanding what could make a person more likely to experience depression is the first step in developing prevention and treatment strategies tailored to reduce individual vulnerability to the condition.
Developing a more complete understanding of the various mechanisms that drive depression could also help researchers get better at predicting who will get depressed as well as predicting how the condition will present over time.
With this information, mental health professionals would be better prepared to predict how a person might respond to antidepressants or other forms of therapeutic treatment.
What Is the Stress-Vulnerability Model?
What Causes Depression?
According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people worldwide live with depression. While the experience of depression is shared by many, the contributing factors will be different for each person with the condition.
There are some factors, like genetics, that you don’t have control over. However, there are others, such as your diet, that can be modified. While making a change won't necessarily prevent depression, it may help reduce your risk.
Whether you can change them or not, it's helpful to be aware of factors that could make you more likely to develop depression in your lifetime. Just remember that researchers are still figuring out the role each factor plays. Having one—or even several—of the factors thought to contribute to depression doesn’t mean you will definitely become depressed.
Depression is common in people of all ages, races, gender identities, and socioeconomic status. According to the 2017 report from the National Institute of Mental Health, depression affects approximately 17.3 million people in the United States. And in 2018, the CDC reported that approximately 1.9 million children (ages 3–17) in the U.S. have been diagnosed with depression.
Depression Statistics Everyone Should Know
Some risk factors for depression are rooted in biology.
Researchers don't agree on precisely how brain chemicals relate to depression, but the connection has been discussed for many decades. Some established theories suggest that low certain levels of neurotransmitters (which the brain cells use to send signals to each other) could cause depression.
Other researchers have proposed that being depressed causes low levels, rather than it being the other way around. The relationship may even go both ways.
What is known is that some people with depression feel better when they take medications that work on these neurotransmitters. However, researchers aren’t convinced this is enough to prove specific relationships between brain chemistry and depression, in large part because some people with depression don’t feel better when they take antidepressants.
The Chemistry of Depression
Researchers know that people who have family members who are depressed are more likely to become depressed. But having a family history of depression doesn’t mean you will experience depression in your lifetime. There are still other factors that have to line up in order for a genetic predisposition to result in depression.
That said, a large genome-wide study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 found that people with a genetic predisposition for major depression have an increased risk for suicide attempts across psychiatric disorders.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Chronic Pain and Illness
Depression is common in people living with chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and migraines. Research has shown that chronic pain conditions may cause biochemical changes that lead to symptoms of depression.
A person with chronic pain and illness may become depressed due to their situation, especially when they are facing a loss of quality of life, a reduced level of day-to-day functioning, prolonged pain, and/or death.
It’s also been shown that people who are diagnosed with one mental illness are more likely to develop another. Conditions such as anxiety and depression commonly co-occur. While different mental health conditions may be diagnosed at the same time and can influence one another, they may need to be treated in different ways.
Certain hormonal shifts can increase your risk of depression as well. For example, the hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, giving birth, and menopause can all contribute to depression.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 1 in 9 women in the U.S. report experiencing postpartum depression. And according to a 2010 study, approximately 4% of fathers report depression in the first year after a child is born.
It’s also not unusual for people with thyroid conditions to experience depression. While symptoms tend to be more common in people with a low-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism), people with an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can also experience anxiety and depression.
Environmental factors also appear to play a role in the development of depression in some people.
Early Trauma and Abuse
One of the more well-studied depression risk factors is trauma in early childhood. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are known to increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing both mental and chronic physical illness, including depression. Research into ACEs is ongoing, but previous studies have confirmed a strong link between specific childhood experiences and depression later in life.
The CDC groups ACEs into three types:
- Abuse: Physical, emotional, sexual
- Household dysfunction: Domestic violence, divorce, substance use, a parent who is mentally ill, a parent who is incarcerated
- Neglect: Physical, emotional
An individual’s ACE score is strongly linked to their risk of mental and physical illness, poverty, and even early death.Risk increases as the number of ACEs increases and a person with four or more ACEs is at the highest risk.
Researchers believe that child abuse may change the brain physically, as well as alter its connectivity structure. Studies have also shown that neuroendocrine function may be altered in people who experienced high levels of stress as children.
A 2019 study from the Massachusetts General Hospital has even proposed that traumatic experiences in the first three years of life may even change a child's DNA.
How Child Abuse Changes the Brain
According to a 2015 survey from the American Psychological Association, 64% of American adults said money was a significant source of stress in their lives.People living in poverty were twice as likely to have depression compared to those living at or above the poverty level.
Not only does living in poverty place a person at higher risk for depression but if they are unable to work or do not have access to support and social services, mental illness can make it harder for someone to break out of a cycle of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Several studies and pilot programs have shown that when people with mental illness were given financial assistance, symptoms of depression and anxiety improved.
Where a person lives can also have an impact on mental health in a number of ways. For example, some people report they become depressed during certain months of the year, sometimes called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
There are also studies that cite pollution and other environmental exposures as potential contributing factors to depression. For example, some research has linked lead exposure in childhood to poor mental health later in life.
In another study, children who grew up in areas with poor air quality appeared to be more likely to be depressed or be diagnosed with conduct disorder by the time they turned 18.
Your environment can also be an asset to your mental health. Research has shown that spending time in nature can help people cope with depression, and a 2019 study found kids who spent time in nature had better mental health as adults.
In addition to biological and environmental factors, social factors such as a person's personality, experiences of stress and conflict, and even social media can also influence depression risk.
Certain personality traits, including low self-esteem, pessimism, neuroticism, and being self-critical or "a perfectionist" have been associated with a greater tendency toward depression and other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and eating disorders.
Researchers are especially interested in learning more about a personality trait that may make someone less likely to experience depression. Resilience, or the qualities or traits that make some people more likely to “bounce back” from adverse experiences, may also be key to preventing and treating depression.
Personality Traits and Depression
Stress and Conflict
Major life events—including traditionally positive events like getting married or negative events like losing a job—can all create stress. When we are stressed, our cortisol levels rise. One theory is that high levels of cortisol (especially when they are chronically elevated) could affect serotonin levels.
Work-related stress, in particular, can be a driver of depression. Losing a job is an obvious stressor, but the work environment can also contribute to stress—especially if it doesn't feel supportive.
According to APA-sponsored polls from 2017, 2018, and 2019, only half of U.S.workers report feeling that they can discuss mental health openly at work.
Conflict at work or school can also make it more likely a person will become depressed. A 2010 study in Japan linked interpersonal conflict at work to depression (particularly among male employees with a higher socioeconomic status).
The year before, researchers in Sweden had published a study showing that having serious conflicts with coworkers or bosses, and/or feeling excluded or left out at work, contributed to depression in employees.
The Main Causes of Stress
It’s not just adults who experience conflict away from home: Kids and teens can encounter interpersonal challenges at school that have the potential to affect their short and long term mental and physical health.
A 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 20% of students between the ages of 12–18 said they had been bullied at school in the previous year.
According to the CDC, kids who are bullied are more likely to experience mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. They’re also more likely to have physical ailments, particularly headaches and stomachaches.Going through conflicts with friends and/or family may also increase the chances that a person who is prone to depression will develop the condition.
Grieving is a process that can look and feel like depression, except that it usually follows a particular timeframe beginning with an event (such as the death of a loved one) and gradually moving toward resolution or a stage of acceptance.
Researchers are learning, though, that bereavement can take on the qualities of a condition similar to clinical depression, particularly in terms of how long it persists (years as opposed to months).
Complicated grief, as it is often termed, appears to be more likely when someone loses a loved one in a sudden, unexpected, and especially violent way (such as a car accident).
Additional studies are needed to formally define complicated grief as a distinct condition, but it appears to have a relationship to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The stress caused by a death, major loss, or another life stressor can be enough to trigger an episode of depression in someone who already possesses the tendency towards this condition.
The Difference Between Grief and Depression
While the research is still fairly new and ongoing, many studies have investigated the effect of social media on mental health, especially in young people.
Several studies have indicated that social media use can trigger depressive symptoms and anxiety through insecurity, comparison, “fear of missing out,” and bullying/harassment (which, whether experienced in-person or online, raises a child’s lifetime risk for depression).
The overuse of social media may also contribute to depression by reducing a person’s level of physical activity and real-life interaction. A sedentary lifestyle and being socially isolated are two factors that can contribute to poor mental health independent of social media habits.
The research hasn’t been all bad, though. Technology, the internet, and social media may also prove useful for helping to detect and manage depression.
The Best Online Resources for Depression
Last, but not least, lifestyle factors from the medications you take to your diet can have an effect on your risk of experiencing depression.
Certain medications are known to have the potential to increase a person’s risk of depression, including:
Medications used to treat mental illness and sleep disorders can also worsen or cause depression in some people. People under the age of 25 are at some increased risk for increased suicidality after starting certain antidepressants. Therefore, the FDA has given these medications a black box warning.
Drugs That Can Cause Depression
It’s not uncommon for people with mental illness to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. However, it’s also important to note that not unlike certain prescription medications, illicit drugs can also make a person feel depressed.
According to data from theNational Alliance on Mental Health’s Drug and Health Survey, 7.9 million people in the U.S. were living with both depression and a substance use disorder in 2014.
When substance use and depression occur at the same time (sometimes called “dual diagnosis") it can be difficult to find the right treatment. People often require a diverse team of doctors and mental health professionals with experience in substance use disorders for support.
If a person needs to withdraw from a substance, it's sometimes safest for them to do so under medical care.Treatment at a mental health facility can also help a person address both substance use disorders and symptoms of depression that may accompany them.
How Substance Use Can Lead to Mood Disorders
Diet and Physical Activity
Recent studies have indicated that adults with mild depression may be able to prevent an episode of major depression through a combination of lifestyle changes. Gut microbes and diet may also play a role in the development of depression. Some research has also shown that certain diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, might help older adults avoid depression.
On the other hand, diets that are high in sugar and trans fat, especially heavily processed food, can promote or worsen depression, especially when paired with a sedentary lifestyle. A possible reason for the link is that diets high in these foods can lead to weight gain. Although, weight gain alone does not necessarily lead to depression.
While weight gain may be associated with the the onset of depression, it should also be mentioned that eating foods high in sugar or trans fats can disturb the balance of the gut microbiome. This can lead to a leaky gut. The immune system gets alerted and releases cytokines that can cross the blood-brain barrier, leading to alterations in neurochemicals. For example, some cytokines can shift production away from serotonin and into glutamate, which, when present in excessive amounts, causes cell damage or cell death. When this occurs, it can trigger anxiety or depression.
In fact, a 2018 studyfound that people were more likely to become depressed if they were overweight—even if the extra weight wasn’t causing other health problems such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.
The benefits of exercise for our health are well known, but we are learning more about how exercising can help people with depression manage their symptoms. Several recent studies confirmed previous research indicating that regular exercise and a healthy diet doesn’t just help people manage depression, but can help prevent it.
How Physical Activity Affects Mental Health
A Word From Verywell
Each person’s experience of living with depression will vary, as will the individual factors that contribute to the development and course of the condition. Mental illness is common and treatable, but it can take time to find the safest and most effective treatment.
Working with doctors and mental health professionals, developing coping strategies at work and school, and having support from family and friends are of vital importance to every person living with depression, as well as those with risk factors for developing the condition in their lifetime.
How to Get Out of a Depressive Episode
Who is more likely to get depression? ›
Women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. Depression can occur at any age. Some mood changes and depressed feelings occur with normal hormonal changes.Are some people more prone to anxiety and depression? ›
People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are. Other mental health disorders. People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder. Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder.Which population has the highest rate of depression? ›
- Adolescents aged 12 to 17 years old had the highest rate of major depressive episodes (14.4%) followed by young adults 18 to 25 years old (13.8%). ( ...
- Older adults aged 50 and older had the lowest rate of major depressive episodes (4.5%). (
Prevalence of Any Mental Illness (AMI)
This number represented 22.8% of all U.S. adults. The prevalence of AMI was higher among females (27.2%) than males (18.1%). Young adults aged 18-25 years had the highest prevalence of AMI (33.7%) compared to adults aged 26-49 years (28.1%) and aged 50 and older (15.0%).
Smoking, obesity, eating an unhealthy diet, and a lack of physical activity are all behaviors that cause depression, according to results of one UCLA study. The risk of depression due to these risk factors varies with age.Is depression a chemical imbalance? ›
Research suggests that depression doesn't spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, and stressful life events.Is depression genetic or learned? ›
Depression is known to run in families, suggesting that genetic factors contribute to the risk of developing this disease. However, research into the genetics of depression is in its early stages, and very little is known for certain about the genetic basis of the disease.What is the 3 3 3 rule for anxiety? ›
Follow the 3-3-3 rule.
Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.
Young and Midlife Adults
The average age of onset for major depressive disorder is between 35 and 40 years of age. Onset in early adulthood may be linked with more depressive episodes, a longer duration of illness, and therefore a more difficult clinical course.
Depression was more common among young adults aged 18 to 25 years at slightly more than 17 percent, and adolescents aged 12 to 17 years (17 percent). Depression increased most rapidly among adolescents and young adults and increased among nearly all gender, racial/ethnic, income, and education groups.
What state has the least depression? ›
- Of American adults, two in five report experiencing symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. ...
- The five states which offer the greatest access to mental healthcare are Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Welcome to Norilsk, also known as 'most depressing city' in the world. Norilsk is the most northerly city in Russia. It is located in Krasnoyarsk Krai region of Siberia, eastern Russia. The situation is so bad there that not even a single road goes there.Is intelligence linked to depression? ›
Studies have also found that higher IQ is associated with more mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.What mental illness is inherited? ›
Scientists have long recognized that many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families, suggesting potential genetic roots. Such disorders include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia.What are the 5 levels of depression? ›
Types of major depression include melancholia, psychotic and antenatal or postnatal. You may be diagnosed with mild, moderate or severe depression. Your mental health professional may diagnose you with depression if these symptoms: happen most days.Is depression curable or just treatable? ›
Depression is among the most treatable of mental disorders. Between 80% and 90% percent of people with depression eventually respond well to treatment. Almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms.What are signs of low serotonin? ›
- Depression and other mood problems.
- Sleep problems.
- Digestive problems.
- Suicidal behavior.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Panic disorders.
Natural antidepressants include SAM-e, St John's Wort, and omega-3-fatty acids, among others. If a person thinks they have symptoms of depression, they should speak to a doctor before trying any natural antidepressants.Is depression a lifelong condition? ›
Major depressive disorder isn't something that eventually “passes.” While most people feel sad at times in their lives, major depression is when a person is in a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks.Is anxiety a chemical imbalance? ›
But researchers don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. They suspect a combination of factors plays a role: Chemical imbalance: Severe or long-lasting stress can change the chemical balance that controls your mood. Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period can lead to an anxiety disorder.
What percent of population is depressed? ›
|Race/Ethnicity||2 or More||15.9|
We've known for some time that anxiety runs in families, but research now suggests that anxiety disorders are passed down from mother to daughter and that having a father without anxiety protects sons from developing the condition.What foods reduce anxiety fast? ›
Foods naturally rich in magnesium may, therefore, help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.What is the mindless habits that cause anxiety? ›
Neglecting yourself and not taking care of your personal needs can be an anxiety trigger. Whether you're not showering regularly, skipping meals, staying up too late or not going to the doctor, it's important to evaluate these behaviors and work to take better care of yourself.What is high functioning anxiety? ›
Instead, high-functioning anxiety typically refers to someone who experiences anxiety while still managing daily life quite well. Generally, a person with high-functioning anxiety may appear put together and well- accomplished on the outside, yet experience worry, stress or have obsessive thoughts on the inside.How old do people with depression live? ›
The researchers said depression can shorten both men and women's lifespan by 10 years or more.What age does bipolar start? ›
Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 15 and 19 and rarely develops after 40. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder. The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely between people.What age does depression spike? ›
Causes and Risk Factors
Women are about twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. You're also more likely to develop depression if you are between ages 45 and 64, nonwhite, or divorced, and if you never graduated high school, can't work or are unemployed, and don't have health insurance.
Why do people not seek help with mental health? ›
Mental health stigma is a huge barrier on why many people don't seek help. We don't want to be judged for seeking treatment. We don't want to be defined as weak or incompetent, or even worse, seen as unable to take care of ourselves. Internalizing these stigmas is the first step to feeling shame and embarrassed.What country is depression most common in? ›
The most recent findings on global depression rates from the WHO indicate that the following countries have the highest rates of depression:
- The U.S.
Britain went off the gold standard, and suffered relatively less than other major countries in the Great Depression.What state has most mental illness? ›
Adult Ranking 2022.
|Rank||City/metropolitan area||Percentage of depressed residents|
|4.||Charleston, West Virginia||29%|
Americans aren't happiest everywhere, of course. According to SmartAsset, Birmingham, Alabama was the least happy place based on the metrics reviewed in the study. It scored poorly in multiple metrics, including personal bankruptcy filings per capita, life expectancy, and the percentage of residents living in poverty.What are some signs of high IQ? ›
- Intense need for mental stimulation and engagement.
- Ability to learn new topics quickly.
- Ability to process new and complex information rapidly.
- Desire to explore specific topics in great depth.
- Insatiable curiosity, often demonstrated by many questions.
Researchers say depression can increase your risk for dementia. Here's why and some simple steps you can take to reduce the odds. The brains of people who experience depression or anxiety may age more quickly than other people. And researchers in a new study say this increases their odds of developing dementia.Why are smart people quiet? ›
Why do smart people tend to be quiet? Intelligent people tend to appear quiet because they are natural observers. They are listening and watching what's going on around them. They tend to analyze the situation, breaking it down into parts like a social puzzle, and ask themselves questions to figure it out.How do I know if I'm mentally unstable? ›
Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt. Extreme mood changes of highs and lows. Withdrawal from friends and activities. Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping.
What is the least common mental illness? ›
Factitious disorder tends to affect less than 0.5% of the population. Also known as 'imposter syndrome' or Capgras Delusion. People with this mental health condition believe that someone in their life that plays a significant role what been replaced with an imposter.What is the most heritable mental illness? ›
One of the most highly genetically inherited psychiatric disorders is bipolar disorder which may affect as much as 1-4% of the population. Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of depression followed by periods of abnormally elevated mood (mania/hypomania).What are the 7 main mental disorders? ›
- Anxiety Disorders.
- Mood Disorders.
- Psychotic Disorders.
- Eating Disorders.
- Personality Disorders.
Research has indicated that individuals with high emotional reactivity (high neuroticism) and introverted tendencies (low extroversion) are more likely to experience anxiety than other personality types .Why are some people more susceptible to anxiety? ›
Summary: Increased levels of serotonin transporters in the amygdala may explain why some people are more prone to anxiety than others. Anxiety-prone people can blame serotonin cleanup proteins gone awry in their amygdala, according to research in marmosets recently published in Journal of Neuroscience.What causes some people to be more anxious than others? ›
Difficult experiences in childhood, adolescence or adulthood are a common trigger for anxiety problems. Going through stress and trauma when you're very young is likely to have a particularly big impact. Experiences which can trigger anxiety problems include things like: physical or emotional abuse.Which personality type overthinks the most? ›
INFP and INFJ: The Overthinkers
We start off with INFPs and INFJs: two Introverted personalities that often experience bouts of anxiety. When it comes to these types, their anxiety can stem from an inclination to overthinking.
The introverted (I) intuitive (N) types (“INs”)—INFJ, INFP, INTJ and INTP—are among the most “sensitive” of the personality types. This is especially true of those who are more turbulent than assertive.Who suffers from anxiety the most? ›
Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety disorders are often treated with counseling, medicine, or a combination of both. Some women also find that yoga or meditation helps with anxiety disorders.Is anxiety low or high serotonin? ›
Serotonin is a crucial chemical for increasing mood and decreasing anxiety. Researchers have found a clear connection between low serotonin levels and increases in depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.
Are you born with anxiety or do you develop it? ›
Most researchers conclude that anxiety is genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors. In other words, it's possible to have anxiety without it running in your family. There is a lot about the link between genes and anxiety disorders that we don't understand, and more research is needed.Is anxiety passed from mother or father? ›
We've known for some time that anxiety runs in families, but research now suggests that anxiety disorders are passed down from mother to daughter and that having a father without anxiety protects sons from developing the condition.What are the 4 levels of anxiety? ›
The four levels of anxiety are mild anxiety, moderate anxiety, severe anxiety, and panic level anxiety, each of which is classified by the level of distress and impairment they cause.Is depression triggered by something? ›
There's no single cause of depression. It can occur for a variety of reasons and it has many different triggers. For some people, an upsetting or stressful life event, such as bereavement, divorce, illness, redundancy and job or money worries, can be the cause. Different causes can often combine to trigger depression.Is Zoloft good for anxiety? ›
Aside from its ability to improve the symptoms of depression, studies have shown that Zoloft significantly reduces¹ anxiety symptoms. Importantly, this research also showed that Zoloft is still an effective treatment for depression and anxiety regardless of any other psychiatric conditions.