Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/21/2022
Depression seems to run in families, and we’ve all heard from time to time about studies that allege a biological connection between your parents and your own risk for depression. It leads to a very important but complicated question: is depression genetic?
Ideally, an article like this would be short, sweet and to the point: one word answer, and you can move on. But in reality, neither genetics nor biology is all that simple. And even if they were, science is only starting to understand the relationship between genetics and depression.
Maybe your mom has it, maybe your grandparents have it. Maybe you’re wondering if it “skips a generation” or if seeing your sibling’s symptoms of depression in yourself means your own diagnosis is on its way.
Take a deep breath — depression isn’t something you can catch or something you’re necessarily stuck with like eye color or your great aunt’s chin.
In fact, there are many more elements to your risk of depression than a few genes or your father’s mental health.
To understand what a family history of depression means to your chances of being depressed, we need to start with a quick look at what the scientific community understands about the genetics of depression, so let’s start there.
There are many risk factors that play into your chances of a psychiatric disorder like depression, and they make up a broad spectrum of history, biology, environment, individual psychology and other categories where something might impact your mental health.
They can also be a result of something like a major life change that could spark mental health disorders.
The death of a loved one may be an obvious example, but even something like moving away from family for the first time can increase your risk of depression. What about the genetics you got from that family, though? How do they figure into the equation? Is there a single gene or genetic variant that’s responsible for depression in children from day one?
Well, it turns out that genetics can play a huge part in recurrent depression risks, though the exact mechanisms haven’t really been identified. Science has not singularly identified depression genes, nor has the scientific community traced the development of depression to specific genetic coding.
What gets even trickier is that depression can happen as a result of combinations of these risk factors, so you may have multiple reasons for experiencing a depressive episode.
Your risk is definitely higher for a depressive disorder if someone in your family has it, but things quickly become more blurry when we talk numbers.
For perspective, one well-regarded study of depressive risk in twins found that a person is roughly 37 percent more likely to get a depressive disorder if their parents had one.
Other family members present a less significant risk — your third uncle on your father’s side once removed is likely not going to play a significant role in your risk of depression calculation (and if he’s part of the family by marriage, well, he plays no role at all, genetically).
But there’s also a diminishing return question for the genetic predisposition question. Is there a genetic correlation?
Essentially, some evidence suggests that as you age out of childhood, your genetic risk factors can decrease over time, where things like upbringing, stress and traumas can more impactfully shape your mental health.
Can your parents still be the cause of depression?
Absolutely. But it’s very different to say your depression is genetic than to say your depression was caused by your parents. A parent doesn’t have to have had depression themselves to increase your risk of severe depression.
“Prevention” in the world of depression is a word often avoided. Science doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms of how depression is triggered, so while we know that certain things can increase your risk of depression, we don’t have a portrait of how to stop them in a reliable, meaningful way.
The same, for the record, goes for cures — there are no cures for depression.
So, what can you do?
While you can’t prevent depression, you can mitigate the impact of risk factors on your mental health. Things like excessive alcohol or drug use or poor diet, sleep and exercise can have meaningful impacts on your mental health. If you take care of your body, you’ve reduced several risk factors that could make those genetics weigh heavily.
We call the things that can reduce your risk of depression protective factors, and they can work like a barrier to protect against the onset of depression.
They might include positive emotions, medical alterations to your brain chemistry and other ways of preserving your mental well-being.
Another way to “prevent” depression is to get professional support for your emotional well-being, which will “prevent” the depression symptoms from taking hold of you, even if you do have it.
It may take the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (which helps people with depression learn to assert control over their depressive thoughts), or in the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (which affect your brain’s balance of the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, with the goal to be evening out your moods).
It may even look like weight loss or no more smoking.
All of these are just examples — the tailored, ideal treatment for you is ultimately a decision you and a healthcare professional should make together.
Whether your depression is the result of genetics or something else matters, but in the big picture, the answer to that question is not as important as starting down the treatment path.
While knowing “why?” can help you understand depression, it’s not a treatment in and of itself — treatment requires professional help.
We provide convenient access to therapeutic professionals right from your own home.
Getting depression may have been part of your genetics, but getting help for depression is something you’re in control of. Do the right thing for yourself today — you owe it to yourself.