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Can Depression Run in Families?

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Updated December 30, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Studies seem to indicate that, yes, depression does indeed run in families.

For example, if a person has a first-degree relative (this includes parents, brothers, sisters and children) with major depression, then he himself will have about two to three times more risk of having depression than other people.  Also, if a parent develops depression before the age of 20, his or her child's risk increases even further, becoming about four or five times greater than that of the population at large.

In addition, in studies comparing the frequency of depression among twins, it has been found that pairs of non-identical twins both have depression about 20 percent of the time. And in pairs of identical twins, who also have identical DNA and theoretically the same genetic proclivity towards developing depression, it has been found that this rate goes up to about 50 percent.

Thus far, scientists have not been able to pinpoint any specific gene or genes which are linked to depression, but it appears likely that multiple genes are involved. Although the genetics of depression are complex, scientists are working to identify the particular genes involved. Further, it appears to be only a matter of time before these genes are identified.  When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, this gave scientists the opportunity to perform genome-wide association studies, in which complete sets of DNA from many people can be scanned for genes which contribute to various illnesses  It has already been done with other illnesses, such as Crohn’s disease and diabetes, and will eventually be done for depression as well.

Of course, being at higher risk for developing depression does not mean that any given individual will develop this illness.  There are many factors involved in depression - such as a person's environment and experiences - which can also contribute to the illness.  It may well be that a indivdidual's personal circumstances never come together in such a way that an episode of depression is triggered.

If depression runs in your family and you are concerned that your children may be at increased risk for depression, there are several things that you can do to proactively help them:

  1. Attend to your own depression.  A depressed parent is a parent who is less able to care for a child and meet his needs.  Also, children are very sensitive to when a parent is not doing well and can often end up feeling responsible for this.  It all creates added stress for the child, making him at greater risk for becoming depressed himself.
  2. Be honest with your children so they know how to spot depression and ask for help.
  3. Be on the lookout of any signs that your child might be depressed - such as tearfulness, fatigue, guilt or wishing to be dead - so you can get him help quickly before his depression worsens.  Also, be aware that depression in children may be expressed in different ways than adult depression, such as acting out in class, irritability, excessive somatic complaints or becoming extra clingy.
  4. Help your child build self-esteem.
  5. Help your child to learn skills for coping with stress and conflict.
  6. Reassure your child that he is not bad or defective.  Teach him that depression is an illness, just like any other.
  7. Give your child permission to have and express his own unique emotions.

While it may not be possible to prevent your child from ever experiencing depression, these steps will go a long way in helping him learn early on how to recognize and cope with his illness.

Sources:

Kam, Katherine.  "Depression:  When It's All in the Family."  WebMD Magazine.  WebMD, LLC.  Accessed:  December 23, 2013.

Moore, David P. and James W. Jefferson. Handbook of Medical Psychiatry. 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: Mosby, Inc., 2004.

Timms, Phillip, ed.  "Depression."  RC PSYCH.  October 2013.  Royal College of Psychiatrists.  Accessed:  December 23, 2013.

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  6. Child Depression
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