A highly publicized study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year (June 17th issue) challenged earlier research suggesting that depression is caused by a “depression gene.”
The new study reaffirmed other research associated with the Human Genome Project which also clearly indicated the lack of a single depression gene as the cause of depression. In fact, the search for a “depression gene” has made it clear that not only has no such depression gene been found, but no single gene will be found.
What has been found, however, is that there is a heritability, a genetic predisposition. But it is a relatively weak one that is highly modifiable by environmental factors. This is the new field called “epigenetics,” the study of how environmental conditions – including social interaction – affects gene expression.
For the people who continue to hold out hope for a purely biological cure, this is an inconvenient truth. As I have said in previous blogs, depression is much more of a social condition than a biological one, and just as there will never be a drug that “cures” poverty or racism, there will never be a drug that “cures” depression.
For the people who blame their genes for their depression, they have lost scientific support for their belief that there’s nothing they can do because of their presumed genetic destiny.
Let’s face it directly: Depression is mostly a socialized phenomenon. We learn ways of thinking, coping, relating, being, that increase our vulnerability and put us at a higher level of risk. Depression has many causes, some of which are biological to be sure, but most of which are psychological and social. Consider these facts:
• Depression is striking people at younger and younger ages.
• As societies westernize, the rates of depression go up.
• As relationships decline in quantity and quality, depression increases.
• As people learn prevention skills, they show remarkable ability to prevent episodes from developing in the first place.
• As they go through psychotherapy to learn better coping skills as well as other mood management skills, they have fewer and less severe episodes and their brains change in measurable ways.
Just how much convincing does someone need to understand that focusing on the biology of depression alone isn’t nearly enough?
So, if depression isn’t in your genes, then where is it? It isn’t anywhere and, paradoxically, it’s everywhere. It’s in your thought processes, it’s in your relationships, it’s in your lifestyle, it’s in your diet, it’s in your level of physical wellness, it’s in your style of decision-making… shall I go on? Yet, what people write to me about is almost always biology. They ask medication questions, they ask biochemistry questions, and they blog about herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Is this an unrealistic search for the magic cure? I think so.
With the evidence so strong that depression is largely a social phenomenon, and when the research highlights you don’t have a depression gene to blame, it means people can no longer be passive, taking a drug and sitting around waiting for it “to work.”
The evidence is unambiguous that the more passive you are, i.e., the less you do to take active steps to help yourself out of depression, the worse you’re likely to feel. It’s why I’m a huge advocate of active, skill-building approaches based on sound therapeutic principles affirmed by good science that shows these methods work. I’ll be describing some of these in future blogs.
Last reviewed: 9 Nov 2010