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8 Risk Factors for Major Depressive Disorder

Learn what increases the odds that you or a loved one will experience major depressive disorder.

a young white woman in distress sits with her arms wrapped around her head

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on June 10, 2022

Major depression (also called clinical depression, major depressive disorder, or MDD) doesn't discriminate between different types of people. Anyone can become depressed, but several factors can increase your personal risk of major depression. These include the following:

You're a woman. Women are about twice as likely as men to have depression during their lifetime. Experts believe this is due to a combination of factors including:

  • Hormonal changes related to puberty, pregnancy, and menopause
  • Social and cultural factors that affect women
  • Added stress from work, parenthood, and caregiving

You’re a young adult. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 21 percent of adults between 18 and 29 years old experienced symptoms of depression in 2019, compared to 18 percent of adults aged 45 to 64, 18 percent of adults 65 and over, and 17 percent of those aged 30 to 44. Rates of depression among teenagers are also growing, with experts citing academic and social pressures as contributing to this trend.

You have a family history of depression. Major depression can affect you even if you don't have a family history of it. But you're more likely to develop depression if you have a relative—especially a parent, sibling, or child—with depression. Current research shows that the risk for clinical depression is most likely a result of both genetics and other life factors, such as experiencing trauma early in life (see below).

You've had major depression in the past. About 50 percent of people who experience major depression become clinically depressed again. That's because depression is a disease that often returns. The right treatment for depression can reduce the chance of a relapse and keep repeat episodes of major depression as short as possible.

You've experienced a lot of stress. The stress of divorce, the death of a loved one, or other painful experience can raise your risk of clinical depression. The same is true for traumatic childhood events, which can trigger major depression in adults. If you've ever had depression or have a family history of depression, your risk of developing depression due to stress or grief may be even higher.

You use alcohol, drugs, or nicotine. People with depression often use drugs and alcohol to feel better. But did you know that substance use may actually raise your risk of depression? Experts think drug use may lower the brain's ability to deal with stress, making you more vulnerable to depression and making episodes of depression more severe.

You don't have strong social support. When it comes to your health—mental and physical—there's something to be said for having friends and loved ones around when you need them. Not having enough support is a risk factor for major depression. In turn, if your depression isn't treated, it can get in the way of good relationships.

You have a chronic illness or take certain medications. People with a chronic physical or mental condition such as cancer, stroke, or anxiety are more likely to also have depression. Some medications can also raise your risk of major depression.

Experts don't know exactly why some people get major depression and others don't, but they do know that some risk factors can make you more vulnerable to experiencing it. Depression can affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. If you feel depressed or have key risk factors, talk to a healthcare provider. With the right treatment, you can take control of major depression.

If you or someone you love is experiencing thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988. You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘HELLO’ to 741741. If you or someone you know is actively considering suicide, call 911 right away or go to the nearest emergency room.

Article sources open article sources

Mayo Clinic. Depression in Women: Understanding the Gender Gap. Page last reviewed January 29, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NCHA Data Brief Number 379. Symptoms of Depression Among Adults: United States, 2019. September 2020.
A.W. Geiger and Leslie Davis. A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression. Pew Research Center. July 12, 2019.
Choi KW, Stein MB, Nishimi KM, et al. An Exposure-Wide and Mendelian Randomization Approach to Identifying Modifiable Factors for the Prevention of Depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2020;177(10):944-954.
National Institutes of Health. Factors that affect depression risk. September 1, 2020.
Nuggerud-Galeas S, Sáez-Benito Suescun L, Berenguer Torrijo N, et al. Analysis of depressive episodes, their recurrence and pharmacologic treatment in primary care patients: A retrospective descriptive study. PLoS One. 2020;15(5):e0233454.
Mayo Clinic. Depression (major depressive disorder). February 3, 2018.

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