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Will I eventually get depression if I have a family history?

  • anonymous Asks ...

    There is a history of major depression in my family. My father had it and he committed suicide. I am 21 and I am fine. I am very worried though because of the genetic risk. Should I take an omega 3 supplement? What can I do to reduce my risk of depression? Should I get therapy in advance to stay on top of things? I am really worried about this – almost to the point where the worry and anxiety I feel about getting depressed is becoming a problem that keeps me up with worry at night.

  • Art Matthews Says ...
    Art Matthews

    First of all, my condolences on losing your father, especially through such circumstances.

    To answer your initial question, there does not seem to be conclusive evidence that depression is 100% heritable (passed down from generation to generation) although many in the field of mental health and behavioral medicine believe that there is evidence for a genetic predisposition for depression and other psychiatric disorders.

    "C'mon, Art! What the heck does that mean? Is it or isn't it?"

    Well, we don't know for sure. The prevailing belief about depression and many other mental and behavioral disorders is that there seems to be interplay between nature (your genetic heritage and state of biological wellness) and nurture (how/where you were raised, what you have experienced and how you view those circumstances). The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states "(g)enetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of multiple genes acting together with environmental or other non-genetic factors." An interplay of genetic, cognitive (what we think) and environmental factors is most likely at the root of depression rather than one single gene all by its self.

    Adult onset diabetes is a similar in that we can see that it does appear to run in families but not everyone gets it. For those people who manage their weight, eat healthy and get proper exercise, they may manage the condition, postpose developing it or avoid getting it altogether.

    Outside of genetics, there are many conditions and circumstances associated with the development of depression:

    1) Stress

    2) Substance Use

    3) Illness, Pain and Aging

    4) Trauma/Loss

    5) Having a Negative Value System (Cognition)

    6) Poor Diet/Nutrition

    7) Environmental/Social Factors (discrimination, isolation, crime, pollution, overcrowding, noise, overwork, lack of recreational outlets, experiencing natural disasters, etc.).

    You may be able, after seeing this list, to identify some factors involved in your father's depression that he didn't address, whether he was aware of it or not, or addressed it or not. Often times people with intractible depression feel hopeless and helpless giving up on help-seeking and talk therapy, and focusing only on medical treatment. That med-only focus might prevent them from addressing something that could be treated through talk therapy, such as a negative belief/value system, low self-worth and grief.

    I don't believe we can guarantee that you never become depressed like your father did, but you most certainly can avoid his fate. You already have a different perspective on depression and suicide and know how detrimental the act of suicide can be on the survivors. You can make different choices.

    It's important to note that there is a difference between the feeling of depression and the condition of depression. We all feel depressed sometimes. There are reasonable and logic reasons why we feel depressed, but the depression is usually short-lived and resolves on its own so that the person goes back to their usual manner of feeling and behaving. For someone who is perseverating (worrying) about developing major depression, they can sometimes overreact to a reasonable situational depression and convince themselves it will never end, provoking the development of an anxiety disorder or even panic attack.

    The best you can do is to live the healthiest lifestyle that is practical for you to live: eat healthy, maintain activity and exercise in your routine, be social, engage in recreational activities, have meaningful work and relationships, develop your spiritual (not necessarily religious) connectedness and monitor your environment and change it when necessary. And it's also important to manage that overactive brain of yours in order to manage the catastrophizing thoughts that are associated with anxiety and panic.

    Whether or not you take supplements or a prophylactic (preventative) anti-depressant is a question for a medical doctor (preferably a psychiatrist) and should be viewed in relationship to your lifestyle and physical condition.

    At this point I am more worried about your anxiety and worry. You might be able to alleviate some of your worry by meeting with a genetic counselor and/or a psychologist or psychiatrist. You may incur some unanticipated medical expenses in doing this research and info gathering, but you will find it easier to sleep at night and be able to relax and enjoy your life. Working with a skilled therapist who works in anxiety and depressive disorders would allow you to process this anxiety, grief the loss of your father and provide you with life-skills that will serve you well in preventing depression and anxiety in your future.

    Best to you on life's journey.


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