Risk Factors

Key Points:

  • We know a lot about risk factors for depression.
  • Knowing about the risk factors can help people to respond if they or someone they know has problems with depression.

Risk factors include:

  • A family history of depression
  • Stressful experiences during childhood
  • Recent life stresses
  • Misuse of alcohol or other drugs

What are the risk factors for depression?

When a person has problems in one of the following areas, their risk of having depression increases. The more risk factors, the greater the risk of depression. Of course, many people have these risk factors and do not have problems with depression. Others have no risk factors and still have problems with depression.

1. Family history:

  • Many of your traits as a person run in families – positive traits such as good health and negative ones such as health problems. This is also true with depression.
  • Men and women with many close relatives with problems with depression are more likely to experience depression themselves.
  • This does not mean that someone with a strong family history of depression is certain to have problems with depression. But it does tell us that there is an increased risk, especially when the person has other risk factors.

2. Stressful experiences as a child such as:

  • conflict in the home
  • parents who are separated or divorced and the stress that may go along with the break up
  • family stress such as a serious illness or death of a loved one
  • a parent who struggles with depression or other emotional problem
  • not being emotionally close to parent(s) or caregiver(s)
  • emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

3. Life stress during the adult years such as:

  • a break up in a relationship
  • disruption in relationships with family and friends (for example, marital or family conflict)
  • death or serious illness of someone close
  • a traumatic experience such as being injured in an accident, assaulted, or seeing a very upsetting event
  • a difficult health problem
  • a serious disappointment at work or school (for example, a lost job or a failed exam)
  • difficulty achieving important goals in life such as satisfying relationships and satisfying work and leisure

4. Chronic stresses such as:

  • financial pressure
  • long-term illness
  • excessive work
  • conflict or disappointment in relationships
  • difficulty with school or work.

5. Misuse of alcohol or other drugs:

  • Frequent use of alcohol or recreational or illegal drugs is a risk factor for the development of depression and other problems such as anxiety.


Dobson, K.S., & Dozois, D.J.A. (Eds.) (2008).  Risk factors in depression.  New York: Academic Press.

Kendler, K.S., & Prescott, C.A. (2007). Genes, Environment, and Psychopathology: Understanding the Causes of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders. New York: Guilford Press.

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