Updated 16 August 2018

Risk factors of depression

With depression, everyone's at risk of getting it. However, there are certain factors that can increase a person's likelihood of developing depression. Depression is often difficult to recognise as it manifests differently from one sufferer to the next.


The behaviour of someone suffering from depression may vary depending on factors such as age, gender, experiences and cultural background. While anyone is at risk, there are certain factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing depression

Family history

Having an immediate family member who suffers from depression increases the risk of developing depression. There is a belief that depression may be genetic, however, the exact manner in which depression is passed through genes is not yet fully proven or understood. 

Early childhood experience

Traumatic experiences during childhood have been linked to an increased risk of depression. Such experiences include the following:

- Death of a parent
- Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Neglect
- Divorce
- Exposure to violence


Ongoing stress is a common cause of depression in adults. Divorce, unemployment, financial strain, illness and strained relationships can all cause prolonged stress that increases one’s chance of developing depression.


Victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse are substantially more likely to suffer from depression. Depression may only manifest many years after the abuse occurred.

Serious Illness
Being diagnosed with a serious illness, particularly a terminal disease such as cancer may trigger depression. 


Depression and alcoholism often go hand in hand. Alcohol is a depressant and can either trigger or worsen depression.

Major life events

Significant events such as moving house, a career change, graduation, divorce, death of a loved one and exposure to an extremely violent or traumatic event can increase the risk of developing depression.

If you believe that you may be suffering from depression, it is important to seek appropriate medical advice. If you haven’t been to a psychologist before, ask your GP for a referral. 

Read more: 

Diagnosing depression 

Reviewed by Zane Wilson, South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), March 2015.

(Previously reviewed by Dr Stefanie van Vuuren, Psychiatrist, MB ChB (Stell), M Med (Psig) (Stell), FC (Psych) SA, May 2011.



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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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