Comprehensive List of Depression Risk Factors

Temporary and Permanent Risks
Risk Factors for Depression
Some Risks are Preventable

Risk Factors for Depression

Some Risks Can Be Avoided – Learn How To Minimize Your Risks

What are the risk factors for depression? Doctors have identified genetic, medical, environmental, and social risk factors. While anyone can develop depression, specific major and minor factors increase a person’s risk for developing the condition.

By understanding the risk factors for depression that make someone vulnerable to developing the disroder, you can help prevent sadness and hopelessness from developing in your life and in the life of others. Some risk factors for depression factors cannot be changed, such as genetics, while other factors can be avoided or prevented, such as drug abuse. The risk factors for depression that are under your control include avoiding drugs, fostering healthy relationships, minimizing stress in you life, and eating well and exercising often.

Major Risk Factors
The major risk factors for depression include female gender, an immediate family member with depression, and a prior episode of major depression. The three major factors are not controllable or temporary unfortunately.

Gender  –   Female sex

Family   –   Depression in the immediate family (spouse, parent, sibling, child)

History  –   Prior episodes of major depression

Minor (Secondary) Risk Factors
The minor risk factors for depression include loneliness, stress, depression in extended family, genetic influence which is tied to personality, illicit drug use, certain medications, illness, history of abuse, and childbirth.

Loneliness    –   Poor social support, such as family and friends not offering help or care

Stress          –   Significant life stress, such as trauma, separation, loss of a job

Family         –   Depression in extended family members

Genetics      –   Multiple small genetic effects most likely influence mood traits

Drugs          –   Alcohol or illegal substance abuse

Medication   –   Several classes of prescribed medications

Illness         –   Disease and illness such as dementia, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV

Personality   –   Being overly dependent, critical, or angry

Abuse          –   Physical and emotional abuse create long-term effects

Childbirth     –   Giving birth may lead to post-partum blues and depression

Risk Factors Explained:


Women report more depression and are seen more often in medical clinics for depression than men. Gender is among the risk factors for depression. Twice as many women report suffering from the disorder than men. Part of this phenomenon may be due to men not feeling culturally open to express feelings of depression.

Family History of Depression

A family history of depression is among the risk factors for depression. Family members who share their feelings and behaviors of depression affect those around them. Having a depressed family member greatly increases your chance of feeling sad and depressed as well; this is true for both immediate and extended family.

Prior Depression

People who have lived through depression have a higher risk of developing depression again. Unfortunately, major depression is highly recurrent where the risk of recurrence is greatest in the first few months after recovery. But after the first few months, the chance of relapse declines steadily as the length of recovery increases. A prospective study[1] found that after recovery from major depression:

20 percent suffered a recurrence in months 1 through 6 after recovery
19 percent in months 7 through 12 after recovery
15 percent in months 13 through 18
13 percent in months 19 through 24
11 percent in months 25 through 30
9 percent in months 31 through 36


Genetics is among the risk factors for depression. Is there a single depression gene? Probably not, and no single gene has been found thus far. Several studies have found genetic elements that contribute to depression, but subsequent studies have had trouble replicating those findings. Multiple genetic studies have included single nucleotide polymorphism analyses, single genes assays, and genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies have not yielded robust, reproducible findings linking specific genes to risk of developing major depression. Furthermore, a meta-analysis of three GWAS did not find significant evidence for associations at any gene loci. However, a meta-analysis of GWASs looking at bipolar disorder, unipolar major depression, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder identified three single nucleotide polymorphisms on chromosomes 3 and 10 that were associated with all five disorders. At this point it is safe to say that many genes with small effects contribute to depression, and more studies are needed.

Poor Social Support

People who are more lonely and without care have difficulty with mood and outlook on life. Poor social support is among the risk factors for depression. The assistance of family and friends is often a crucial first step in helping people recover from sadness and loneliness.


Significant stress is among the risk factors for depression. triggers the release of several hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone, and prolactin, the effect of which is to increase mobilization of energy sources and change in mood. Mental stress leads to chronic activation of the neuroendocrine systems, releasing cortisol. Chronic changes in hormone levels affect mood and can trigger depression. Life stressors include loss of a loved one, pressure on the job, trauma or pain, deadlines, worry, fear.

Illegal Drugs

Most illegal substances when ingested alter mood and cognition. Dangerous drugs are among the risk factors for depression. Many drugs cause an elevation in mood, but as the chemicals wear off severe depression can set in often lasting for days. People often get caught in a vicious cycle of using drugs more often to avoid the terrible feelings of drug withdrawal (“crashing”).

Prescription Drugs

Many people are unaware that prescription medications may cause depression as a side effect. Click here for more information.


Having an illness or disease may cause significant distress and disability, which adds to the risk of overall depression. Certain diseases such as cancer are known to cause depression.


Giving birth to a child is a beautiful experience, but one that places much stress both physically and emotionally on the mother. Two conditions may occur after childbirth that alters the mother’s mood: postpartum blues and postpartum depression. Postpartum blues is a temporary condition characterized by rapid mood swings between joy and sadness, with lingering anxiety, irritability, crying spells, insomnia, and decreased concentration. [2] Postpartum blues affects up to 40 to 80 percent of postpartum women, usually within two to three days of delivery, and lasts one to two weeks. [3] Postpartum depression (PPD) is a serious depressive condition causing extreme sadness, anxiety, crying spells, and insomnia after childbirth that lasts for more than two weeks and up to a few months. It often goes unrecognized because many of the usual discomforts of childbirth (e.g. fatigue, difficulty sleeping, low libido) are similar to symptoms of depression.

Personality Traits

Personality traits play a large role in our daily mood. People who tend to be over-dependent on others, very critical of themselves or others, have low esteem, or have poor confidence experience more unhappiness than those who do not. Certain personality traits are among the risk factors for depression.

Abuse History

Abuse is among the many risk factors for depression. Children and young adults are especially vulnerable to abuse that causes lasting effects well into adulthood. One analysis of seven different studies concluded that children who were mistreated either by physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or violence, were twice as likely to have recurrent depression than those who did not experience abuse. [4] Adults who experience abuse as adults also report more depression.

In Conclusion:

Many factors influence how we feel. Our environment, genetics, and psycho-social elements play a very large role in our mood. Difficulty with feelings of isolation, poor social relationships, harsh criticism from others, and guilt have been found to perpetuate depressive feelings. [5]

Social networks can spread depression as well. Negative thoughts, false accusations, and hurtful speech travel across the Internet on sites like Twitter and Facebook. One large study showed that your chance of being depressed increases by a factor of 93 percent if a person you are directly connected to is depressed. [6] Indeed, depression can be contagious. We must act responsibly and with more compassion in how we treat others.

Last updated 10/01/14

[1] Solomon DA1, Keller MB, Leon AC, Mueller TI, Lavori PW, Shea MT, Coryell W, Warshaw M, Turvey C, Maser JD, Endicott J.”Multiple recurrences of major depressive disorder.” Am J Psychiatry. 2000;157(2):229.
[2] O’Hara MW, Schlechte JA, Lewis DA, Wright EJ. Prospective study of postpartum blues. Biologic and psychosocial factors. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1991; 48:801.
[3] Steiner M. Postpartum psychiatric disorders. Can J Psychiatry 1990; 35:89.
[4] Nanni V, Uher R, Danese A.”Childhood maltreatment predicts unfavorable course of illness and treatment outcome in depression: a meta-analysis.” Am J Psychiatry. 2012;169(2):141.
[5] Hayhurst H, Cooper Z, Paykel ES, Vearnals S, Ramana R.”Expressed emotion and depression. A longitudinal study.” Br J Psychiatry. 1997;171:439.
[6] Rosenquist JN, Fowler JH, Christakis NA.”Social network determinants of depression.” Mol Psychiatry 2010 Epub ahead of print.