Is Depression Genetic or Environmental?

Posted by Augustus Cai on June 17th, 2021

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in the U.S. experienced depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people aged 15 to 44, and that it affects more than 16.1 million America adults or about 6.7% of the U.S. population aged 18 or older in a given year.

Persistent depressive disorder (depression that lasts for at least two years) affects approximately 1.5% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older in a given year. That's about 3.3 million people.

" Depression is a common condition that can affect people from any background in any walk of life, anywhere in the world," says Jay Fournier, director of the mood and anxiety program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

Symptoms of Depression

Awstin Gregg, senior vice president and behavioral health expert and therapist at Vertava Health, a national behavioral health care system for mental health and substance use conditions that's based in Nashville, Tennessee, says that symptoms of depression can present in a variety of ways:

"For some people, symptoms of depression can be described as an overall sense of sadness, a lack of pleasure in things or activities that they used to enjoy and a sense of fatigue resulting in disrupted sleep patterns such as sleeping too much or not enough. Others report feeling a greater sense of irritability and a general disinterest in spending time with others, preferring to isolate instead."

While symptoms can vary from person to person, so can the chances of developing depression in the first place. Why exactly it happens to some people and not others isn't fully understood, and it's a multi-factorial disease, meaning, "there's no single cause," Fournier says.

Causes of Depression

Several factors can contribute to the development of depression, including:

-- Genetics and family history.

-- Life events and trauma.

-- Chronic stress.

-- Specific brain circuits and how they function.

-- Illnesses.

-- Medications.

"Often, these forces interact with one another to bring about or maintain an episode of depression for a particular person," Fournier says.

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As such, he adds that whether depression is caused by nature or nurture, "we don't really think about this as an either/or question anymore. Our genes and our environment interact in complex ways to give rise to our experiences."

That said, if you have a family history of mental illness, that can increase your risk of developing depression as genes can play a role in depression. "We know that someone's genetic make-up can make it more likely that they will experience depression, but it doesn't guarantee that they will."

By the same token, Fournier says "it's quite possible for someone to become depressed and have a hard time identifying anything in their environment that triggered it. Again, depression is a complex illness and several factors can come together to lead someone to experience depression."

If you find that you're experiencing depression or feeling out of sorts, it's worth talking to your doctor or a counselor about what you're experiencing because you don't have to be feeling this way. Depression is a treatable illness.


"The good news is that we have several different kinds of treatment options that work through different mechanisms," Fournier says. This means that whether your depression is more influenced by your biology or your environment, there's probably a treatment out there that will work for you.

Fournier says current treatments for depression include:

-- Medications.

-- Short-term talk therapy focused specifically on reducing depressive symptoms.

-- Newer methods that work by stimulating specific parts of the brain to alter the functioning of brain circuits.

"If one treatment is not effective for a particular person, there are several alternatives that likely would be." And it may take some time to find the right one for you. "We know that different treatments work better for different people, but we don't yet fully understand why that is," he adds. Research is ongoing, and at some point in the future, the underlying cause of depression could more directly impact the selection of treatment options.

Lastly, Fournier says "the most important thing if you start to experience symptoms of depression is to take them seriously and to talk with a doctor or a mental health professional about them."

Ariane Ling, a clinical psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Hospitals in New York, says that while some people may feel like they need to cope with feelings of depression on their own because they're embarrassed about reaching out for help, it's important to push back against this stigma.

"There's a practice and a field that supports you. You wouldn't hesitate to seek help with a cavity or cancer," so why would you hesitate to ask for help with depression, she asks.

And when you do seek treatment for depression, know that there are lots of options but it might take some time to find the right one. "If you're receiving treatment and your symptoms aren't improving, talk to your treatment provider. Alternative treatments may be available to you," Fournier says.

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Augustus Cai

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Augustus Cai
Joined: June 17th, 2021
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