What is the Cause of Depression?

What is the Cause of Depression?

Many of my clients want to know what is the cause of depression. Depression is not caused by one thing, but an interaction of many. Part of the challenge of therapy is to determine what the factors are that contributed to your depression. I find it helpful to look at depression as resulting from several different contributing factors.


We know that there is a genetic component to depression. Studies of identical twins raised apart have found that if one had depression, the other would about 67 percent of the time. We also know that genetics contributes to the cause of depression because adoption studies show that children of depressed parents are more likely to be depressed.


We know that in people who are depressed have reduced levels of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that affect moods. The major neurotransmitters are serotonin, nor epinephrine, and dopamine. Each neurotransmitter has specific regulatory functions in the brain. Some of the functions include: sleep, memory, alertness, energy, emotions, and movement (all of which are effected to some degree in depression).

Medical Conditions /Medications

Medical conditions may trigger depression. These include: hypoglycemia, thyroid problems, anemia, diabetes, mono, hepatitis, and the flu. Steroids, seizure medications and medications for asthma can also bring on depressive symptoms.

Depression is not an easy thing to figure out, or an easy thing to treat. However, in my work with adults and children, I have seen several factors that consistently seem to be a contributing cause of depression. Some of these factors include:

Family Issues

Family or origin is very often a cause of depression. Any history of neglect, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is a risk factor for depression. The building blocks for how you feel about yourself are initially laid in your family. Of course, as you get older you learn more about who you are from the world and your experiences in it. Many people who have dysfunctional families grow to be successful and happy. However, if you are treated badly and harmed as a child you often do not view yourself as important or valuable, and it certainly complicates your ability to view the world as a happy and friendly place.

Family issues don’t just include abuse and neglect. Conflict in a person’s family, role stress, communication problems, and other family issues can be a contributing cause of depression.

Loss of a Loved One

Losing a major relationship with someone you care for or love or your support system can be a contributing cause of depression. This does not have to be through death, it can be through divorce, a move, or a falling out. Very often children and adults who come to me with depression have a history of a significant loss: a grandparent, a miscarriage, a friend, spouse, or parent, or sibling.

Other Major Stressors

Any major stress can be one of the causes of clinical depression: job stress, financial stress, social stress, or physical illness, to name just a few. Depression can result when we lack the coping skills to handle overwhelming events. This happens very often with children who experience a significant loss or trauma.

Role Stress

Many women I see in therapy for depression seems to have role stress as a contributing cause of depression. When women enter new roles or have multiple roles this can cause internal and external conflict that can be a cause of depression. Often I see this in clients who are new moms. They may have left their career and single or pre-baby friends and are trying to figure out who this new person is. Also, this is common in women who are college students or just entering the workforce after college. They may struggle with deciding whether they want to work and have a career, be a mom, or be both. “The empty nest syndrome” is another example of how changes or stress from roles can be one of the causes of clinical depression.

Negative Beliefs and Thoughts- The Way We View the World

One of symptoms commonly observed in people who have depression are negative thought patterns. Depressed people often have a negative view of themselves, the world, and the future. People who are depressed may evaluate everything according to a negative schema. They view a positive or an innocuous event as negative or harmful. Their perceptions are distorted. Sometimes this is a personality trait in a person who is depressed, other times it is a trait that develops with the depression. A normally happy and optimistic person can become depressed and begin to view the world and themselves negatively.

External Locus of Control

Essentially this refers to feeling that you have no control over your destiny. Instead of attributing success to your actions, you attribute it to events which have acted upon you. These leads to a sense of powerlessness which is a contributing cause of depression. People don’t have an internal locus of control wake up every day and feel no control over life. They feel unable to set goals and achieve them and are at the mercy of fate. If someone with this trait is faced with a crisis, a loss, or a major stress, they often do not have the skills to recover and cope. You can see how things such as a learning disability or a lack of social skills can lead to a perceived lack of control, or negative belief about yourself. This is why these things are considered risk factors in developing depression.

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