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Causes of Depression

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

April 15, 2024

Table of Contents

Depression is a common mood disorder affecting 10% of the US population at any given time.

Also labeled clinical depression or major depressive disorder, this debilitating condition impacts the way you think, feel, and behave.

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Depression can trigger an array of problems, both physical and mental. If you’re suffering from depression, you may find it hard to go about your regular daily activities, and you may have a pervasive feeling that life isn’t worth living.

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Far more than a case of the blues, depression is not a weakness, and it’s not a moral failing. Despite the frustrated cries of loved ones the world over, it’s not possible to “snap out of it.” If things were that simple, 50 million Americans could just snap out of their mood disorders.

Fortunately, depression can be treated. Therapy for depression typically involves antidepressants and/or psychotherapy. Most patients notice an improvement in symptoms following treatment.

What causes depression, though?

Four Major Causes of Depression

The symptoms of depression are commonly blamed on a chemical imbalance in the brain, and this can be true in some cases.

This condition is much more complex, though, and there are more possible causes for depression than imbalanced brain chemistry. Often, there is more than one cause of feeding depression.

The complexity of depression means that two individuals exhibiting the same signs of depression and similar symptoms may require completely different treatment programs.

  • Genetics
  • Brain chemistry imbalance
  • Underlying medical conditions and physical health
  • Lifestyle-related risk factors


Just like with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, genetics is believed to be 40% responsible for the development of depression.

We know that depression is more common among people with a family history of mental health disorders. If others in your family suffer from depression or a different type of mood disorder, there’s more chance you’ll experience the symptoms of depression yourself.

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As an example, if your parents or grandparents have depression, this doubles your risk of developing the condition yourself. Other studies involving twins and adopted individuals also show there is a strong genetic component to depression.

Research is still ongoing in an attempt to pin down the genes responsible. Despite studies suggesting a strong link between genetics and depression, more research is required to illuminate these genetic risk factors.

If you have a history of depression in the family, there’s nothing you can do to change that genetic inheritance. By being aware of the heightened risk you run of developing depression, though, you can be better forewarned and forearmed. Also, remember that no single cause of depression works in isolation. Even if genetics plays a sizable role, environmental factors can also play into this mood disorder. Beyond this, there is the issue of imbalanced brain chemistry to consider, too…

Brain chemistry imbalance

People suffering from depression seem to experience physical changes in the brain. Scientists have not yet clarified the significance of these changes.

It is also highly likely that neurotransmitters are a biological cause of depression. These chemicals occur naturally in the brain. When these neurotransmitters undergo changes or interact with neurocircuits, this can interfere with mood stability. The chemicals involved are:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine

It should be noted that this theory, while often cited as the main cause of depression, remains unproven. Not only this but brain chemistry imbalance – as we’ve outlined today – doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to depression.

Many antidepressants work by altering the levels of chemicals in the brain. The main types of medications are:

  • SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors)
  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  • MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors)
  • TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants)

Underlying medical conditions and physical health

Some people with chronic illnesses, thyroid conditions, or sleep disorders are more prone to developing depression.

Among those suffering from diabetes, chronic pain, MS (multiple sclerosis), and cancer, rates of depression are higher than average.

It’s no secret that the body and mind are very closely linked. As such, it’s not at all surprising that physical health problems can trigger changes to mood and mental health.

Illness and depression are interlinked. The stress-induced by chronic illness can trigger a major depressive disorder. Also, some illnesses like thyroid disorder and Addison’s disease can bring about the symptoms of depression.

Lifestyle-related risk factors

While you cannot control genetic risk factors for depression, you have more control over lifestyle factors.

A low-quality diet can contribute to depression, especially if you’re eating too much sugar or not enough vitamins and minerals.

Stressful life events often contribute to depression, too. This might be due to the elevated levels of cortisol released during times of stress, although this is not fully established.

If you experience the loss of a loved one, the symptoms of grief should slowly subside. If they persist, this could become an episode of major depression.

Perhaps the most damaging of all lifestyle factors when it comes to developing depression is the abuse of substances.

Many people with depression self-medicate using drink or drugs. Not only does this do nothing to alleviate the symptoms, but it can even make them worse.

Conversely, abusing alcohol or drugs long-term can cause depression.

When you have a co-occurring mental health condition and substance use disorder, this is known as a dual diagnosis. Unpacking both problems simultaneously is complex, but both issues are eminently treatable.

Depression Treatment

While depression impacts one in ten Americans, it can be successfully treated. Most people who engage with treatment and stick with it will notice an improvement in symptoms after a month or so.

You may need to pack some patience, though. Antidepressants are commonly used to treat depression but these can take weeks to kick in. Additionally, you may need to experiment with several types of antidepressants until you find one that works for you. While all these medications play the same basic role of recalibrating brain chemistry, they achieve it via different mechanisms. With a little persistence, your healthcare provider should find one that proves effective.

an image of two people discussing the causes of depression

Psychotherapy is also beneficial for treating depression. Therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) help you to explore negative feelings and to change the way you react to these feelings.

Often, a combination of medication and psychotherapy works most effectively for treating depression.

Treatment for Depression at Renaissance Recovery Center

If you’re struggling with depression and a co-occurring alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, we can help here at Renaissance Recovery Center.

Our dual diagnosis treatment programs can be tailored to suit the scope and severity of your addiction, while also simultaneously addressing your underlying depression. Integrated treatment attacking both issues at the same time through medication-assisted treatment and psychotherapy should give you the foundation you need for sustained sobriety.

To get things started, call the friendly Renaissance team at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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