Depression is one of the most common types of mental health disorders that people experience in the USA. A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that about 11.5% of adults have experienced mild symptoms of depression, with 2.8% experiencing severe symptoms. It may not seem like a lot, but that means that at least one in 10 adults in our country has experienced mild depression.
Some people wonder why depression is so common. Others may even wonder if genetics play a role in why so many people are affected by depression. The short answer is yes, but also no. Depression is equally caused by not only biological factors but environmental factors as well. Someone may have a higher chance of developing depression due to genetics. However, someone may also be just as likely to develop depression despite depression never showing up in their family’s history.
Depression can sometimes be difficult to study, and we are still making discoveries about it every year. So far, this is what we know about depression, how genetics play a role, and how we can help further the understanding of this common but complicated mental health disorder.
The Genetic Factors Behind Depression
To understand genetics, we first must understand what makes a body. Every living person is born with DNA. These are blueprints that our bodies use to create us. A gene is a segment of DNA that contains the blueprints for a specific part of our bodies. For example, a gene determines what color your eyes are. Heredity refers to the traits we get from our parents that are built into our genes. Some traits are less likely to appear than others. When we put this information together, we get the study called genetics. Genetics is the study of genes, how they work, and how we inherit traits from our families.
However, sometimes genes may not work correctly, which causes problems in the body. This is the fundamental cause of genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia or Huntington’s disease. So far, it is unlikely that a single gene is responsible for depression. Though if several genes, especially those responsible for brain chemistry, go awry, it can be the basis for a major depressive disorder.
We rely on special chemicals called neurotransmitters to send messages through the brain and body. Serotonin is the chemical linked to our mood, and too little of it can be the cause of depression. If a direct family member, such as a parent or grandparent, has genes that inhibit their ability to create and use serotonin, it’s likely to be passed down to their descendants.
So yes, if a close family member has depression, you are more likely to develop depression than someone whose family is free from it. However, depression can develop in anyone at any time despite genetics, and it’s important to acknowledge those as well.
The Role of Environment and Biology on Brain Chemistry
It’s not only genetic factors that can cause someone to develop depression but the environment as well. As mentioned above, we rely on a delicate balance of chemicals to help us not only regulate our mood but function in daily life. When these chemicals become interrupted, it can cause many things, not just depression.
Traumatic brain injury can be a common cause of depression. Lots of things can injure our brains. High fevers, concussions, and some types of diseases can wreak havoc on our brains. These leave physical harm to our brain that is difficult to recover from. When our brain cannot regulate or create the chemical messengers we need to function, it can cause major problems. One of these results can be depression. In these cases, a person may need to rely on medication to create the chemicals they need since their brain cannot do so on its own anymore.
People who live in environments that are full of stress and trauma can also cause someone to develop a mental health disorder. Our environment can fundamentally change how the brain functions. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder experiences anxious symptoms because their brain thinks that it is in danger. When someone is repeatedly subjected to dangerous and traumatic situations, it trains the brain to think that it’s “normal.”
Part of anxiety treatment is reteaching the brain to change its ‘normal’ state from anxiety to one that is calmer. Depression is similar. If you are in an environment that feels hopeless and sad, your brain starts to think that this is how it’s supposed to function normally.
This is how a person who has no genetic history of depression can develop it. It’s important to remember that no matter where the depression comes from, the person with depression is still deserving of help and care.
How to Help Further the Understanding of Depression
Our understanding of depression is the result of mental health research. These are people who spend their lives studying why we develop mental health disorders, how to treat them, and how to prevent them. That’s why they need people who have mental health disorders to share their experiences.
If you have a mental health disorder, it may be helpful to sign up for a clinical study or a clinical trial. Studies are when someone is examined, interviewed, or observed. Trials are when treatments are used to test their effectiveness. By contributing to a trial or study, you help researchers gather valuable data. This data can then go on to help others develop treatments that can save lives.
If you’d like to sign up for a study or trial, you can either speak with your mental healthcare provider, check with a reputable university or hospital, or check official websites, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), for information on upcoming studies. Your input may be more valuable than you realize.
Mental health researchers are working hard every day to further our understanding of depression. It has been discovered that our environment plays as much of a role in who develops depression as biology does. For this reason, depression treatment must be approached from all angles to help those who struggle with it achieve long-lasting recovery. At Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we offer safe and effective treatments to help people overcome their depression. Depression can happen to anyone, so it doesn’t make you weak or bad if you develop it. You are worthy of help. If you or someone you love is struggling with their depression and needs help, call (949) 647-4090 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.