Can You Inherit Depression?

Can You Inherit Depression?

by Dr Emma Gray - 25th September, 2014

The risk of you suffering from depression does increase if a member of your family also suffers from depression, however, this is not for the reasons that you may think.

Depression is not a physiological problem; there is no indisputable evidence to show that depression is caused by a defect of deficit in the organic structure of the brain. Research that has detected structural differences between the brains of people with and without depression can be just as well explained as a consequence of depression than as a cause.

The field of physical health is more established than mental health and as a result doctors try to use a physical health framework to understand psychological and emotional problems. These two aspects of human beings are vastly different and so cannot be understand using the same paradigm. Attempts to ignore these differences have led to theories promoting genetic and physiological explanations for the cause of depression which has in turn led to inadequate treatment for sufferers of depression.

The reality is that depression is not an illness that you develop as a result of some genetic predisposition or inherited trait. Depression is an understandable response to a set of self critical thoughts and beliefs about one’s own inadequacy and/or inferiority in relation to others. Examples of the thoughts that lead to an individual feeling depressed included:

“I am not good enough”

“Others are better than me”

“I am incapable”

“I cannot cope “

“I will be rejected”

“I am a failure”

This however does not explain why depression seems to run in family. For this we must consider why a person would develop such negative belief about themselves. Our perception of ourselves, including our value in the world, develops in childhood and in childhood our biggest influence is our parents.

If our parents suffer(ed) from depression they will also have been plagued by thoughts of inadequacy and so will have unwittingly modelled this self criticism to us, teaching us a way of thinking about ourselves. Once learned this negative self belief continues to influence us into adulthood, effecting how we understand the world, highlighting our weaknesses and flaws and dismissing our strengths and achievements. Over time this constant internal bullying effects our mood resulting in extended periods of depression. So it is not that our parents pass on depression genes to us but instead a set of thoughts that lead to depression.

This idea can be extremely unpalatable and can lead people to feel angry at their parents and guilty at the prospect of having to blame them. However, this is not about blame but understanding, your parents did not intent harm, they are a product of their early experience just as you are. And this way of understanding depression gives you a way forward, a way of resolving your depression because whereas genes cannot be changes, beliefs about yourself can.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a ‘talking therapy’ that has been shown to be incredibly effective in helping the sufferers of depression to change their self critical thoughts and thus resolve their feelings of depression. Clinical trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for depression time and time again and have shown it’s superiority over anti depressants in the longer term, which makes sense because anti depressants assume a genetic /physiological cause for this emotional disorder.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleague once described me as natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


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