What are the risk factors for depression so I can help prevent it?

Strange. We doctors know the risk factors for heart disease really well, but the risk factors for depression are a little … well … hazy. Most researchers and clinicians would generally agree on these being the major risk factors. I have arranged them into an easy to remember acronym for you. If you know the risk factors, you know what you can do to minimize the risk of clinical depression happening in your life.

 Here’s the acronym: when depression gets too bad it’s time to “CALL the GP.”




Chronic stress, Chronic illness and Chronic pain

Abuse, Alcohol & drugs

Life events (Losses & change)

Lack of love (Loneliness)

GENETICS Our current theory is that genetic vulnerability (nature) combines with social factors (nurture) to bring about mental illness. Fine. But people despair that they’re doomed because of genetics when social factors are much more important than they think. You can do something about those.

Depression can run in families, but even this may not be genetic. It could also be

inheriting a vulnerable personality,

inheriting another illness,

dysfunctional parenting because of mental illness,

experiencing similar trauma as your parent,

something about your shared environment,

an external factor contributing to mental illness in both parent and child.

 Generations of people in the military, for example, may all experience PTSD, but that does not necessarily mean it’s passed down through genes.


PERSONALITY Generally speaking, people who are perfectionists, who are very self-critical, or are very sensitive to rejection, are at increased risk for clinical depression. Being diagnosed by a professional as having a personality disorder also means an increased risk. But, many high-functioning people are perfectionists, self-critical and may be sensitive to rejection without experiencing depression.


CHRONIC stress, illness and pain. If you have to live with pain and illness all the time, it leaves you open to depression. Do what you can to keep on top of these. Chronic stress is bad news for all of us and we need to manage it.


ABUSE increases the risk. We all need to work together to decrease the occurrence of all forms of abuse.


ALCOHOL AND DRUGS Alcohol directly depresses your mood and drugs affect your mood by depressing you or by leaving you with a low after the high. Limit your intake of these to lower your risk of depression.


LIFE EVENTS can come at you like curve balls, but the human spirit is very resilient. Losses will make any of us feel bad: losing your job, relationship, apartment, a friend, health or your dreams. If you get hit hard, you will feel down and this leads to an increased risk of clinical depression. Strangely, positive life events can also become a stress leading to depression. This is because of the upheaval and change involved in, say, getting married, having a child, moving house, or retiring. The important thing is to manage your reaction to the many positive and negative life events that can befall all of us.


LACK OF LOVE Loneliness is, I believe, the biggest risk factor in our society for depression. It leads to people feeling down and worthless and many drown their sorrows in alcohol and drugs, which increases the risk of depression. Do what you can to take care of and share love with your family, friends and colleagues. I will talk more about this in future posts.


For a more detailed look into the risk factors for depression check our Podcast “What is Depression? Prevent it with love and friendship.” This is the first in a series of podcasts on understanding and preventing depression.

Listen on iTunes

Listen on Spotify

Christian Heim