The causes of depression

Depression does not discriminate; it affects people of all races, cultures and classes. As a parent, it’s very normal to wonder why your teenager has become depressed, and even to feel some responsibility for it (‘Am I responsible for this?’, ‘What could I have done differently to prevent it?’) in spite of the fact that it is not your fault. Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to these difficulties in part because of the enormous physical, emotional, social and cognitive changes that occur during adolescence.

Like many physical and mental health difficulties, depression may have a number of different causes, which fall into one of three categories: social, biological, and psychological factors. Most people who develop depression will have a combination of risk factors from all three categories.

Social and environmental factors can refer to trigger events, which may occur just before the period of low mood. Teenage triggers tend to either relate to: - relationships with other people (family, friends, and girlfriends/boyfriends) - failure or fear of failing (eg schoolwork, or hobbies).

Some children who experience many negative life events (eg with bereavement, deprivation or severe trauma) may be at increased risk of depression. However, the relationship between life events and distress doesn’t neatly align, and any negative impact can be reduced if children feel supported through their difficulties and are able to learn to cope when things go wrong.

Biological factors can refer to DNA and genetics as well as developmental factors. Depression tends to run in families, but this does not necessarily mean that it is genetically determined (families tend to share environmental factors as well as genes). Research has not identified a single gene or group of genes which put people at risk of developing depression. The fact that some identical twins develop depression whilst others (within the same pair) do not, indicates that depression is not exclusively determined by genetics. We’ve already seen how the adolescent brain can lead to a vulnerability to depression:

  • the prefrontal region (which helps us to manage emotion and our understanding of the world) is still maturing during adolescence
  • adolescents are highly sensitive to social cues and reactive to minor disagreements with friends, and being excluded or ridiculed.
  • adolescents are also more responsive to rewards, often those which involve risks, such as smoking, drinking or taking drugs

Psychological factors refer to an individual’s resilience or ability to cope; resilience tends to protect against developing depression and stems from:

  • having good social support (having family or friends that can be drawn on in times of difficulty)
  • having balance in life (being involved in a variety of activities and relationships)
  • having a more optimistic outlook (assuming that life will get better rather than worse seems to be useful in warding off future episodes of depression)

Many factors can contribute to the development of depression, including genetics, life events and psychological factors, and these will vary from person to person. As one parent succinctly put it:

‘It’s not your fault that your child is ill…ditch the guilt. It wastes valuable energy’.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

University of Reading