Is Depression Hereditary?

By Erika Krull, LMHP

If your parents had depression, you might have twice the risk of developing it yourself. So, is depression hereditary, or are there other factors in play? That’s the question researchers have been trying to answer for several years.

Depression does run in families, but the role of genetics is still being clarified. It’s not as simple as passing on hair or eye color to younger generations. The following provides an overview of the relationship between genetics and depression, as well as ways you can get help for depression and other mental health concerns.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression is often viewed as just an emotional and mental condition; some people think it simply means feeling sad or having a negative attitude. However, depression has a strong effect on a person’s body as well. A person with depression often struggles with at least one or more physical symptoms, such as fatigue or loss of appetite.

Depression is a whole-body health condition that can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Symptoms can also look different in men, women and children. For example, men are more likely to show anger than sadness when they’re depressed. Depression in teens can be tough to catch since moodiness is common during adolescence.

When a person has several symptoms at the same time, depression may be developing.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Irritable mood, feeling easily frustrated
  • Loss of interest in most activities the person usually enjoys
  • Hopelessness
  • Thoughts of being worthless
  • Excessive feelings of guilt

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating, loss of focus
  • Repeatedly thinking about death
  • Attempts or thoughts of suicide
  • Memory problems

Physical Symptoms

  • Unintentional weight loss or gain
  • Change of appetite — either overeating or lack of appetite
  • Sleep disruption — either insomnia or oversleeping
  • Noticeable change in physical activity — sluggishness or restlessness
  • Being easily fatigued, loss of energy

Does the “Depression Gene” Really Exist?

Depression is more likely to occur in people who have a family history of depression. Researchers have also found genetic connections with depression, but some have misinterpreted these findings. The myth that depression could be inherited has grown from this mistake. For years, people have been interested in the possibility that a specific gene causes depression. This theory has been studied several times, but there is currently no evidence of a depression gene.

Researchers continue to discover more links between specific genes and depression. However, these genetic variants can put a person at risk for several mental health concerns. They aren’t tied to any particular disorder; instead, they add to a base level of overall risk. Parents pass a mix of genetic variants to their children, so if both developed depression, those variants might put their children at risk as well.

However, having a family history or genetic risk doesn’t mean depression is inevitable. A person may develop a strong sense of resilience that stems from their home and family environment. Their personality and abilities may offer some protection as well. In the end, a person’s odds of becoming depressed are unique to them.

Genetics and the Efficacy of Mental Health Treatment

There’s no concrete evidence of a depression gene, but genetic testing may play a role in choosing a depression medication. A handful of companies have created genetic tests to help with treatment decisions, and doctors can use the results to understand how a person’s body may react to medications. Genetic testing does not guarantee a certain treatment will work or not, though — it only shows what a person’s genetic profile looks like.

However, the FDA has not supported these tests. In 2018, the agency released a letter of warning that explained their concerns to consumers and health care providers. The letter warned that the claims of tests predicting medication response had not been established and that the FDA had not reviewed these claims. Still, officials at the FDA saw promise in genetic testing with more research.

Other mental health organizations also saw little value in genetic testing. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology told clinicians not to use testing when choosing medication. The American Psychological Association also felt there wasn’t enough evidence to support testing. A statement in the American Family Physician journal echoed the lack of support. Many medical experts see the promise genetic testing has, but many others are skeptical for now.

Seeking Treatment for Depression

Mild depression may improve on its own, but if left untreated, symptoms can linger and worsen over time. Most people who treat their depression can recover and regain feelings of happiness and hope for the future. Seeking help is essential, however, especially if your symptoms don’t get better. Here are a few simple ways to get started with depression treatment.

Talk to Someone You Trust

Start by reaching out to someone you trust. Consider talking to a friend, family member or a faith leader you feel close to. You’ll feel less isolated and may feel more encouraged about getting treatment. They may also know the name of a trusted therapist or doctor to get you started.

Call Your Primary Care Physician

Talking with your doctor is another good approach, especially if you aren’t sure what else to do. They may consider treating your depression with medication, discuss how to cope with your other symptoms or refer you to a counselor. Ask about all the options they recommend or find helpful.

Start With Online Therapy

The Nobu app offers online therapy with licensed therapists. This convenient option makes counseling easily accessible, and it may save you money as well. Without ever leaving the app, you can schedule appointments, attend therapy sessions, learn strategies for improving your mental health and much more.

Online therapy takes some adjustment, but research has shown it to be effective. Learn more about online therapy and other wellness features on the Nobu app.

jonathan strum headshot
Edited by – Jonathan Strum Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Written by – Erika Krull, LMHP

Erika Krull has a master’s degree in mental health counseling and has been a freelance writer since 2006. She is a healthcare writer specializing in mental health content for professional training modules, blogs, and websites… Read more.

dr angela phillips

Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.