Is depression hereditary?

Depression doesn’t have a single cause. There is no universally accepted answer to the question whether depression is hereditary or not: some researchers claim that depression is a result of psychological stress and conflict, others that it is caused by genetic factors, but most precise are probably those who claim that both causes are possible and this depends on the type of depression. The increase in the number of people suffering from depression is mostly due to difficult childhood experiences and inability to deal with past experiences, relationship breakdowns, financial problems, stressful events in a person’s life such as death of a loved one. In these cases, changes in the brain occur that are visible in the malfunction of certain chemicals, which consequently causes depression. However, in some cases depression is hereditary, namely, within families with a family history of depression.

Depression in children and young people occurs very often and for a variety of reasons. A research implemented in the United Kingdom (Department of Health and the Scottish Executive, 2004) showed that 4% of the population aged 5 to 16 living in private households suffered from anxiety and depression. The emotional disorders varied according to family characteristics. For example, the number of children living with a single parent was higher in terms of suffering from depression than the number of children living with both parents. Other factors associated to depression in young children were: a history of alcohol or drug abuse in the family, lack of parental support, parents suffering from depression, substance abuse.

Genetic factors: how do children inherit depression?

In cases when depression is hereditary, there are genetic factors involved which are passed from parents to descendants through genes. Research has shown that depression may be associated to possible genetic variations on several chromosomes. However, each of these variations carries only a small amount of risk and the development of depression based on this predisposition further depends on environmental factors (such as those mentioned in the text above). Everyday stress in a life of a person combined with traumas may trigger or worsen depression in individuals born with a predisposition to its development genetically (even if a traumatic event happened once in a lifetime).

  • An example of hereditary depression is arguably manic depression also known as bipolar disorder, which affects 1-5% of population and it varies in severity. People suffering from this disease experience mood swings from euphoria to melancholy. The chances are 16-17% that the child will inherit the disease if one of the parents suffers from bipolar disorder, and 40% if both parents have a history of depression.

Genetic predisposition to depression seems to vary among sexes, as one of the researches in which twins were studied suggests that the rate of genetically caused depression is higher in women than in men. The authors of the research also concluded that depression in men is triggered by environmental factors more often than in women. It is further concluded that depression is hereditary in the amount of 40% in women and 20% in men. Research has also shown that 60-80% of depression cases are based on environmental factors (rather than genetic).

  • Scientists also studied whether other similar diseases and disorders related to depression, such as anxiety and panic, also fall in the category of possible hereditary disorders and the evidence showed that the hereditability is probable. The same genetic factor is responsible for the occurrence of both depression and anxiety. Yet, psychological, social and environmental factors differentiate between anxiety and depression. Except in the case of mania (bipolar disorder) these genes may trigger anxiety and mood disorders rather than depression. The outcome is always individual just like each individual life is different from the other.

How can we prove whether depression is hereditary?

  • family history– check whether depression is running from one generation to the other (first relatives in the same lineage of the family)
  • laboratory findingsand genetic markers – unfortunately, those used in the past were disproved so that the new challenge in the field of depression is to find out how to measure or prove its presence in the body based on new tests.
  • drug response – this is an invalid test that most clinicians use to prove whether depression is hereditary: some researchers assume that positive response to anti-depressives actually confirms the existence of the disease and its genetic predisposition (if you are feeling depressed this really needs to be your last option and implemented only after the disease has been clinically proven in another way).

Charles L. Whitfield’s book The Truth about Depression: Choices for Healingis an excellent resource to investigate these ways of proving depression as hereditary disease. The author of the book questions family tree investigations as the foundation for making conclusions about genetic factors associated to depression. In addition, Whitfield investigated numerous studies including prospective studies also known as the “golden standard” which proved that most depression cases were based on childhood trauma. His attitude is clear: people should undergo trauma-focused treatments.

In the text above, I called bipolar disorder an arguable example of hereditary depression; Whitfield describes 13 reports on people having this uncommon type of depression – all of them suffered childhood trauma before showing symptoms of mania.

Charles L. Whitfield’s quote:

“Depression and grief are two sides of the same coin. Depending on which side the experiencers and their clinicians may look can determine their subsequent clinical outcome and possibly even their long-term fate.”


Orange Coast Magazine 1989, Interview by Julie Bawden Davies (p. 184)

Lynne Walsh, Depression Care Across the Lifespan(2009)

Linda Wasmer Andrews, Encyclopedia of Depression, Volume 1 (2009)

David H. Barlow & Vincent Mark Durand, Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach(2008)

Charles L. Whitfield, The Truth about Depression: Choices for Healing(2003)

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