Is Depression Genetic?

Evidence suggests there may be a genetic component to depression, though much is still unknown about the exact causes.

If your parent or sibling had depression, maybe you're worried you'll get it too. Or perhaps you're concerned that because you have depression, you'll pass it on to your child. Whatever the case, you may find yourself wondering: Is depression genetic?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. About one out of every six adults will experience depression at some time in their life. However, it isn't a condition that only affects adults. Anyone can become depressed—regardless of age and no matter their gender, race, or background.

Is Depression Hereditary?

Depression can be hereditary. Studies that looked at families and twins found that genetic factors can be a major contributor. Other studies have also determined that the sex of the parent who handed down the gene may affect how severe depression is.

However, depression doesn't seem to have an exact inheritance pattern.

It's indicated that people who have a parent or sibling with depression are two to three times more likely to develop it. Yet many people with depression have no family history of the condition, and others with an affected family member don't develop depression.

Also, much is still unknown about the genetic basis of the condition. Studies suggest that variations in many genes, rather than one single gene, combine to increase the risk of developing depression.

Causes of Depression

Depression can be caused by a number of factors. Mental health experts like to take what is called a biopsychosocial look at the situation. In other words, they look at biological, psychological, and social influences in the patient's life. They will also take a look at what medications a patient is taking because some can cause depression as well.

Biological Causes

For some people, depression can be largely biological—meaning they inherited genes that make them more likely to develop the condition. The biological component of the biopsychosocial model looks at how mood is affected by the following factors, among others:

  • Genetic vulnerability: A 2021 study conducted by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine and the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) discovered 178 different gene variants that may be associated with depression.
  • Physical health: People with certain physical health issues may be more susceptible to depression.
  • Sex: Females are more likely to develop depression than males, and while societal factors may contribute, biological factors (such as hormones) almost certainly play a role.

Psychological and Social Causes

Both psychological and social factors may also contribute to the risk of developing depression. The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model includes:

  • Self-esteem
  • Coping skills
  • Emotionality

Among others, the social component accounts for the following:

  • Family circumstances
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Peer relationships
  • Education level

Experts believe that psychological and social factors likely interact with genetic factors to determine a person's risk of depression.

Parents, Children, and Depression

Parents with depression can play a direct role in their children's development of depression beyond genetics. Children may pick up thoughts and behaviors from their parents, increasing their risk of depression.

For example, fewer family routines and increased household disorganization have been linked to adolescents' depressive symptoms. This can happen in families where there are adults with depression, which affects family functioning and parenting.

Additionally, parental depression may affect children emotionally and behaviorally. Babies born to mothers who are depressed may cry more, while young children may be fussier or more aggressive. Children in middle childhood and adolescence might also be more likely to:

  • Express worse social competence
  • Negatively interpret ambiguous events
  • Blame themselves for anything negative
  • Have lower self-worth and self-esteem

Other Factors for Childhood Depression

Other than a family history of depression, there are a number of factors that can contribute to depression in children and adolescents. They include:

  • Caregiver conflict
  • Early adverse events (e.g., abuse or neglect)
  • Gender dysphoria
  • History of medical or mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, chronic illness, or brain injury)
  • Identification as gender nonconforming or LGBTQ+
  • Negative outlook
  • Poor coping skills
  • Previous depressive episodes
  • Problems with family, friends, or school

What To Do if You Have a Family History of Depression

Since family history can contribute to depression risk in more ways than one, it's important to be aware if you do have family members who have been diagnosed with the condition.

One thing you can do is to pay close attention to your own mood. Keeping a mood diary can help you track your moods over time and also show you what things are affecting your emotions.

Having an understanding of what your normal mood is like and being attuned to any changes is key. If you do notice a change, even if it's minor, consider seeking help. You might consider talking with a family member or friend that you trust, a healthcare provider, or a mental health professional.

Also, be aware of how family members with depression were treated and how they responded to that treatment. Medications that were helpful for close family members with depression previously may be considered for your treatment if you are diagnosed with depression.

A Quick Review

A person can be at risk for developing depression if close family members (e.g., parents or siblings) have the condition. Still, the specific way that depression runs in families continues to be researched, as family history does not always mean a person will have depression.

Ultimately, if you have a family history of depression, there are some actions you can take. They include being aware of your mood and any changes and seeking help from a healthcare provider or mental health professional.

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