• Depression is a complex mental health condition. Some of the main causes of depression or contributing factors include upsetting life events, substance use or misuse, family history of depression, mental or physical health conditions, and more.
  • Causes of depression differ depending on age, gender, sex, and race—for example, an elderly caucasian woman may develop depression related to cognitive decline, whereas a multi-racial LGBTQ+ teen may suffer from depression due in part to a lack of social acceptance or representation.  
  • Those who are most at risk for developing depression include young adults ages 18-29, multi- or bi-racial individuals, and those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community.
  • The causes of depression may be staved off by consistent exercise, incorporating gut-healthy and brain-boosting foods into one’s diet, connecting with a licensed mental health professional, and investing in a tangible support system outside of social media apps.   

As with any other mental health condition, comprehending what causes depression is crucial to managing and treating depressive symptoms. This starts with understanding that depressive disorders have no singular cause but a set of factors that are all involved in the development of depressive symptoms. With this in mind, the current understanding of the causes of depression is constantly evolving, as treatment methods and research techniques become more refined. 

But no matter how much we know, one simple fact remains the same: The better understood the contributors to and/or causes of depression are, the better equipped mental health professionals will be to help treat, manage, and most importantly, prevent depression. 

What Is the Leading Cause of Depression?

In the recent past, much stock was put into the idea that the causes of depression revolved around chemical imbalances in the brain—primarily low serotonin levels, to be precise. While past research did indicate a connection between low serotonin and depressive symptoms, the current consensus is shifting away from this view. Instead, depression (and more broadly, depressive disorders) are seen as a multi-factor mental health condition, with correlating circumstances, but without a single root cause

What Are the Main Causes of Depression?

Some main causes of depression include: 

  • An upsetting life event, such as being diagnosed with a terminal illness, the death of a family member, divorce, or pandemic.
  • Substance use or misuse, which may be used to cope with pre-existing emotional issues before the onset of depression.
  • Family history of depression or mental health conditions.
  • Pre-existing mental health concerns or conditions, particularly anxiety or schizophrenia.
  • Brain chemical imbalances which affect mood regulation.
  • Long-term financial stress that can erode an individual or couple’s emotional resiliency over time.
  • Childbirth, which may result in peripartum depression, or a change in body image for women.

Though these are some of the main causes of depression, unique, highly personal factors may also contribute to the development of a depressive disorder

Do the Causes of Depression Vary Among Age Groups and Gender?

Depression symptoms may be more common amongst different age groups, but the causes of depression, more often than not, vary greatly. Take a look at some of the unique causes of depression affecting different age groups and genders: 

  • Causes of depression in late adulthood: For seniors and the elderly, depression may be related to declining physical health or cognitive impairments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. The death of a partner, other family members, or friends, due to these circumstances, may also increase one’s risk of depression.
  • Causes of depression in teens: Hormonal imbalances can cause significant mood shifts in teens of both sexes, but with budding social skills and self-esteem, teens are heavily affected by social factors. That’s why the causes of depression in teens may include bullying, body image issues, and academic stress. 
  • Causes of depression in women: Notably, women are two times more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. The leading causes of depression in women can include the pre- peri- and postnatal periods, sexual violence or harassment, professional pay gaps, eating disorders (which are not exclusive to women), and chronic anxiety. 
  • Causes of depression in men: Men may become depressed due to societal pressure to repress their emotions; and compared to women, men consistently report being more lonely and having fewer friends than their female counterparts. Low testosterone, body image issues, and a poorly developed ability to process difficult emotions can leave men susceptible to depressive disorders and other conditions.
  • Causes of depression in children: Kids may become depressed due to chaotic home life, bullying, favoritism between other siblings and parental figures, divorce, or a myriad of mental health conditions, such as genetic susceptibility to depression or anxiety, or developmental issues such as ADHD, dyslexia, or autism. 
  • Causes of depression in college students: For those attending university, depression may arise from chronic stress and fatigue—and may be worsened by caffeine consumption and binge drinking. College students also face an increased risk of depression as a result of sexual assault

Who Is Most at Risk for Depression?

The demographic most at risk of developing depression are individuals between the ages of 18 and 29. The National Institute of Health also found that in 2020 people ages 18-25 were most likely to suffer from major depression. The same dataset highlighted that those of two or more races were nearly twice as likely as other racial groups to develop depressive symptoms. People who fall within the LGBTQ+ community also suffer from an elevated risk of depression. These three groups are most at risk for experiencing depression due to unique social and psychological factors:  

  • Young adults commonly go through significant life transitions as they explore romantic relationships, substance use, career changes, social groups, and form a solid sense of identity and self-image. 
  • Multi- or bi-racial individuals may struggle to find acceptance from other ethnic or racial groups, as their mixed identity can be met with disdain, confusion, or rejection from others—even family members. 
  • LGBTQ+ individuals may commonly face intense discrimination at work, and in public, and are at increased risk of intimate partner violence, which may contribute to the development of a depressive disorder.

How Can the Causes of Depression Be Prevented?

Just as there is no specific, singular cause of depression, preventing depression from developing is a multi-faceted process. While our guide to self-care helps elaborate more on how individuals can prioritize each aspect of their physical and mental health, more general ways to establish a routine that guards against the causes of depression may start with: 

  • 30 minutes of exercise 3-5 days a week, which may significantly reduce one’s chances of developing depression. Exercise promotes dopamine and serotonin production, and although neither chemical (in the case of a deficiency) is solely responsible for depressive symptoms, stable levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain likely play a supporting role in preventing depression. 
  • Incorporating gut-healthy foods and brain-boosting fatty acids into your diet, such as salmon, avocados, pistachios, kimchi, yogurts, and leafy greens. A thriving gut biome is linked to positive mental health, and the Omega fatty acids in many protein-rich foods can help improve concentration and assist in regulating your mood.
  • Reaching out for help from a mental health professional who can help you effectively manage and mitigate your depressive symptoms. Depression is a serious mental health condition, and like any other affliction, getting treatment as soon as possible could drastically reduce your recovery time and the severity of your depression.
  • Lastly, investing time into building a tangible support system, outside of social media, is crucial. We may connect with our friends virtually through social media, but evidence suggests that when we’re on the cusp of becoming depressed or are looking for a deeper sense of social connection, our favorite apps aren’t likely to be fulfilling

Though friends and family are no substitute for professional assistance with depression, having meaningful, supportive relationships can serve as an effective buffer against the pain of isolation and loneliness that are often by-products of depressive disorders. And as our interrelationships grow stronger and interconnected, the sense of purpose and mastery that positive interactions lend us can serve as a barrier to the isolating and damaging effects of depressive disorders.