Risk factors that make us susceptible to depression

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Perhaps one of the only positive impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic is an ever-increasing focus on what causes depression.

Previously, many people bought into the idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that has to be cured with medication and that you either have it, or you don’t.

This lack of understanding has led to a stigma being attached to depression and anxiety, because as a rule people don’t want to believe that mental health issues could affect them.

The fear, anxiety and isolation associated with the pandemic has in many ways revealed this idea for what it is: a myth. Yes, biological factors can play a role in depression. Nutritional deficiencies, hormonal changes, inflammation, immune system suppression, and abnormal activity in certain parts of the brain can cause depression. But more and more we are realising that psychological and social factors have an enormous part to play as well. These include past trauma, loneliness, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and lifestyle choices.

If we really want to tackle depression head on, we need to stop thinking that depression is caused by factors beyond our control, and start focusing on the risk factors that make us all susceptible to depression. Not only can we develop healthy coping mechanisms if we understand these risk factors, but we can support our friends and loved ones to ensure that they are not impacted by these risk factors as well.


Risk factors that make us more vulnerable to depression

First, it’s important to understand that there is seldom a single cause for depression. Instead, depression is usually the result of a combination of factors. For example, imagine you lose your job while you are going through a divorce. The stress of both of these life-changing events could prompt you to start drinking more as an unhealthy coping mechanism, which in turn causes you to isolate yourself from friends and family. Together, these factors could combine to trigger depression. You didn’t set out trying to become depressed, but the result is the same – and it could have been avoided.

So, let’s look at the risk factors that universally make people more susceptible to depression:


Marital or relationship problems. Home should be a safe, comfortable space. If a marriage is unhappy or abusive, the opposite is true. Strong and supportive relationships are crucial to good mental health. Toxic relationships are the opposite – particularly at home.

What to do: If you recognise that you are in an unhealthy relationship, reach out to your family and support network and figure out a way to remove yourself from the relationship. Having close friends or family to talk to can also help you maintain perspective on your issues and avoid having to deal with problems alone. There are many counselling services that can assist you. Profmed’s WHISPA program was specifically established to assist those who have been exposed to gender based violence, for example.


Loneliness and isolation. There’s a strong link between loneliness and depression, something millions of people around the world experienced during the pandemic and lockdowns. Humans are naturally social creatures and without social support the risk of depression is heightened. This also triggers a cycle of spiralling depression, because depressed people tend to withdraw from others, exacerbating their feelings of isolation.

What to do: If you notice that you are feeling lonely and isolated, make an effort to reach out to friends and family. Tell them how you are feeling and ask them to regularly reach out to you. The more you interact with your loved ones, the more the feelings of isolation will subside.


Recent stressful life experiences. Any major life changes can often result in overwhelming levels of stress. These include unemployment, financial problems, divorce, and of course, anxiety around your health and safety and the safety of your loved ones.

What to do: While we cannot always control what happens around us or to us, we can focus on how we manage our stress. Reaching out to loved ones and being honest about how you are feeling and your stress and anxiety levels is an extremely important first step. Sharing these experiences can alleviate some anxiety and there are many professionals who can assist as well. Most important is breaking the stigma that we cannot admit our anxiety or fears. Reach out to your loved ones. Check in on them. And let them know that they can always reach out to you. There is nothing in life you need to do alone.


Personality. Whether your personality traits are the result of life experiences or inherited from your parents, they can influence your risk of depression. For example, someone who worries excessively or tends towards a negative outlook on life is far more susceptible to depression that someone who is naturally more positive.

What to do: You may find that professional help will assist you, particularly if you struggle with low self-esteem. However, becoming more mindful of your surroundings and practicing gratitude and positive thoughts are both good ways to begin training yourself to think and feel more positive.


Early childhood trauma or abuse. Early life stresses such as childhood abuse, trauma, or bullying can be a major influencing factor towards depression.

What to do: Speak to a counsellor or reach out for professional help. It is difficult to overcome childhood trauma alone and you may be struggling with depression without recognising the cause.


Alcohol or drug abuse. Unfortunately, substance abuse and depression often go hand-in-hand – and they each make the other worse. Many people use drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medicating their moods or to help them cope with stress or difficult emotions. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms only add to depression.

What to do: Be honest with yourself about whether or not you are relying on substances to help regulate your moods or stress. It’s never too early – or too late – to access a support system and network to help you.


The cause of your depression may help determine the treatment

Understanding the underlying cause of your depression may help you overcome the problem. Whether you’re able to isolate the causes or not, the most important thing is to recognise that you have a problem, reach out for support, and pursue the coping strategies that can help you to feel better.

If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, anxiety or a mental health disorder, please reach out for support.


For assistance you can contact:



CALL: 0860 WHISPA (944 772)

EMAIL: info@WHISPA.co.za


SADAG Mental Health Line

CALL: 011 234 4837


Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline

CALL: 0800 12 13 14

SMS: 32312


Suicide Crisis Line

CALL: 0800 567 567


Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline

CALL: 0800 70 80 90


Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline

CALL: 0800 456 789


Pharmadynamics Police & Trauma Line

CALL: 0800 20 50 26