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Social Causes of Depression

Gregory S. Beattie
Rochester Institute of Technology

Depression is one of the most prevalent psychological disorders. Depression can be caused by several factors, including interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are the relationship between individuals and the reactions and emotions of each individual expressed directly and discreetly to each other. Common interpersonal relationships include (a) within the family, such as between the parents and between parents and children; (b) the social environment where differences in ethnicity and social class come into play; and (c) interactions between genders across age groups for both females and males.

Many people suffer from depression at one point in their life. It is inevitable, the feeling of hopelessness, sorrow, or being alone. These are all common emotions associated with depression. For a select few, depression can be hard to overcome, and this is where depression becomes a disorder that requires active treatment. Those 'selected few' account for over 100 million people worldwide and result in 75% of all psychiatric hospitalizations (Gotlib & Hammen, 1992). Yet the question remains, why did these people become depressed? How did they become depressed? One of the answers that lead to the cause of depression would be a person's interpersonal relationship with their surroundings and the people around them. There are many interpersonal instances that can have the ability to lead to the onset of depression, such as the family environment, the socialization setting, and the discrimination against gender in certain cultures and instances.


One could argue that out of all the interpersonal cases that can contribute on the onset of a depressive disorder, the ambiance of a family has the most weight and impact on a depressed individual. In the case of spouses, the well being of one spouse will have a notable impact on the other spouse and on the welfare of their marriage. For example, in 30% of all marriage problems, there is one spouse that can be described as clinically depressed. The reason why a spouse might have a unipolar mood disorder could be due to their relationship being "characterized by friction, hostility, and a lack of affection" (Gotlib & Hammen, 1992).

Martial distress can also be caused by the impact of having a child. When a woman is pregnant, she can experience a whole range of emotions due to the changing of interpersonal relationship with husband and the building of a new relationship with the unborn child. For example, the building of a new interpersonal relationship with the child can be very tasking and become a major stressful life event that can cause a mood disorder to develop (O'Hara, Lewis, Schlechte, & Varner, 1991).

Aside from the martial distresses of spouses, the impact of depressed parents can have an effect on their children as well. In a study on the relation between depressed adolescences and depressed mothers (Hammen & Brennan, 2001), they found that the depressed children of depressed mothers had more negative interpersonal behavior as compared with depressed children of non-depressed mothers. This is reinforced when a study (Chen & Rubin, 1995) shows that the parents of depressed children are less warm and caring and more hostile than parents of non-depressed children. Because of this negative interpersonal relation between kids and their parents, children can develop a negative view of their family. This negative view can lead to the feeling of lack of control and having a high risk of conflict, rejection, and low self-esteem (Asarnow, Carlson, & Guthrie, 1987).

Cummings (1995) stated that any changes in a family environment due to parental depression increase the risk of developing a mood disorder in children. The result of this can be found as early as preschoolers and infants, due to the insecure attachment they develop with their parents. The emotional distress of children can also have an effect on their parents, causing depression that in turn will also affect the children, theoretically creating a never-ending cycle unless they seek treatment. Sometimes It is not the depressed parents that lead to the onset of depression in their children, but rather it is the change in the family environment that stems from the parents' depression that causes the children to become depressed. Some studies suggest that martial troubles are a better predicator for the onset of depression than the depression of the parents or the children themselves (Cummings, 1995).

Experiencing depression while as a child or an adolescent can also lead to reoccurring slips as an adult. Depressed persons often perform poorly in marriage and relationship with family members and they also might respond negatively to others, which have the ability to create stressful life events, which as a result might drive the person further into depression. Depressed people are dependant on other people and constantly seek reassurance in such a way that drives people away. Hammen and Brennan (2001) found that 13% of the sons and 23.6 % of the daughters who were depressed had depressed mothers as compared to 3.9% of the sons and 15.9% of the daughters who were depressed lacked a depressed mother.

Many people believe that children and parents suffer differently from depression, but not so. Depressed children can be like depressed parents, expressing sadness, anger, shame, and self-directed hostility (Brown & Siegel, 1988). Just like adults, depressed children tend to blame themselves for bad events and accredit the environment for good events--they do not give themselves credit when due (Blumberg & Izard, 1985). This is why oftentimes, children will feel guilty if their parents get divorced and they believe that they were at fault but realistically, it was the parents' martial distress that was the cause of the divorce, not the children's depressive mood disorder.


As in the family environment, socialization is key to maintaining healthy relationship and feeling well deserved and part of someone's life. Depression can have an adverse effect on the social capacity of depressed persons, affecting their social functioning and ability to react and deal with stressful situations. Gotlib and Hammen (1992) discussed the social functioning of people with depressive disorders and found that people with the symptoms of depression are found to test low in social activities, close relationships, quality close relationships, family actives, and network contact, yet they test high in family arguments.

One major part in the development of mood disorders in a social setting would be how well one could deal with stressful events. Normally, this is called coping strategies and it allows a person to manage their troubles and not be overwhelmed. Oftentimes, people can become depressed when unable to deal with "drama" from their friends-especially in children. Depressed children reported significantly higher level of hopelessness, lower general self-esteem, and lower coping skills than non-depressed children. Their ability to be unable to cope with stress can lead to fewer and less adaptive coping techniques (Asarnow, Carlson, & Guthrie, 1987).

Social settings can also include one-on-one interactions and the rejection that occurs. In a study performed by Joiner, Alfano, and Metalsky (1992), they tested whether a depressed individual would have an affect on other people in one-on-one interactions and they found that affected people did have such an influence on other people. This influence could be described as responding negatively to their constant searching of reassurance and rejecting them, which in turn will "confirm" the affected person's belief that he or she is unworthy as a person.

A depressed individual can impact their social settings by exhibiting a lack of self-esteem, becoming more sensitive to the opinions of others, and more importantly (and interestly), become less physically active (Lewinsohn, Gotlib, & Seeley, 1997). This means that they will not want to go out, that they do not want to exert themselves. A prime example of this would be an athletic in school that becomes depressed. He does not want to participate in athletic activities because he is depressed, but his coach forces him to. As a result, he performs poorly, and his teammates heckle him for his poor performance. As an affected person, the athletic becomes overly sensitive to his teammates' heckling and his self-esteem plummets and he drops out of sports and begins to withdraw and fight with everybody he knows.

The social class can also have a subtle effect on depression. Brown and Harris (1978) reported that the females with children in the working class were more prone to depression than females with children in the middle class. This can be attributed to the working class mother having to leave home to work, having to leave her child alone. This interpersonal relation can cause excessive worry and guilt that the women is not being a good mother as compared to the middle class mom, who can afford to stay at home and take care of the children/her family.

Okazaki (1997) found that Asian Americans are more depressed in a social and academic setting because they have to face more pressure than their white American peers due to the fact that they are part of a visible minority that has different culture values than others. This interpersonal relationship between the two "cultures" can be defined as competitive and stressful due to the fact that in America, white people "have it made" while as other ethnic groups have to work twice as hard to get their foot in the door. This extreme indicator of stress can lead to the dejection of many ethnic groups because they might have failed at succeeding in a competitive environment.


There are a lot of interpersonal relations when it comes to gender, such as the discrimination against gender in an academic setting. This is very prominent in females, where girls can face increased expectations to conform to the standards set forth by society, to pursue feminine type activities and occupations. It appears that parents tend to have "lower expectations" for girls when it comes to school. As a result of that lowered expectations, parents tend to not push their daughters toward a high-profile job, instead attempting to make their daughter conform to the stereotype of society, like become a teacher or a nurse. In fact, in 1986-1987, women only garnered 15% of the bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering as compared to 76% and 84% for education and nursing, respectively (Nolen-Hoeksema, & Girgus, 1994). Breaking the social norm can also lead to depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991); the more intelligent a girl is, the more likely she is to become depressed. This positive correlation could be attributed to the more intelligent girls being able to out-perform the boys yet get punished for doing so. Being depressed as a female adolescent can have consequences in the long run in terms of social functioning, career, and enjoyment of life. Theoretically, if one were to be depressed in high school, then their grades would suffer. If their grades were to suffer, then their chances of entering a good college would dwindle. If they cannot enter a top-notch college, then they might not be able to get the career they want, and with that they would not be able to enjoy their job and feel like they have missed out on life.

The different experiences of each gender can also be the cause of a mood disorder. The experience can vary by the age of the children, adolescences, or adults. For example, after the age of 15, females are twice as likely to become depressed as compared with men and in another study of 11-year olds, only 2.5% males met the criteria for major depression while only 0.5% females met the criteria, however in a study of 14-16 year olds, 13% of the females met the criteria while 3% of the boys did (Nolen-Hoeksema, & Girgus, 1994). This abrupt rise of depressive disorders in females during the mid-to-late adolescence years can be attributed to the more concerns a girl has as compared to boys. These concerns and worries can range from their achievements or lack of, body dissatisfaction, sexual abuse, and low self-esteem (Lewinsohn, Gotlib, & Seeley, 1997).

This is reinforced when another study found that between the ages of 15-18, the prevalence of depression in girls will increase to twice the prevalence of boys (20.69 to 9.58) but will taper off during 18-21 years of age for both genders (15.05 and 6.58) (Hankin, Abramson, Moffitt, Silva, Mcgee, & Angell, 1998).

Do not be mistaken that females are the only gender that that can become depressed; a good number of males can develop a unipolar mood disorder. In the average lifetime, 49% of all males will experience a depressive episode (as compared with 63% of all females). Males will become sad and dejected for different reasons, such as intimate relationships. When an intimate relationship ends, males are more likely to become depressed at the loss than females (Hankin et al., 1998). This could be attributed to the male's primal desire to have a mate so he will be able to continue his family name.

Depression has been around for a long time, spanning over thousands of years, dating back to the time of Saul I (Eaton, 2001), yet even though Depression is a disorder that is hard to understand. Even with all the studies conducted, there is still not much to regarding the causes of depression. There are so many ways one would be able to become depressed, but the most common and most prevalent way thus far would be the interpersonal relationships of a person and their family, social lives, and the relationship between their gender and the discrimination they suffer at the hands of others. Perhaps a better understanding of those relationships can open up new avenues where new options for treatment can be conceived and new ways of interacting to people to create a equality amongst people where they will not feel depressed.

Peer Commentary

Nonshared Environment Overpowers the Shared Environment

Avi G. Haimowitz
Rochester Institute of Technology

Gregory S. Beattie’s paper articulates many important variables that significantly impact the onset and severity of depression in human beings. However, his paper does not take into consideration the relative impact of shared environment versus nonshared environment. Which one of these wields more power than the other? His paper seems to support the theory that shared environment, or an external surrounding that is shared by people in the same family, will affect whether or not those individuals experience depressive symptoms. Case in point: His topic statement for the first section of his paper dictates that the most important interpersonal factor that may cause depression is the family environment. Conversely, many studies over time have demonstrated just the opposite: nonshared environments, or surroundings unique to each individual, have more significant effects on the likelihood that depressive symptoms will occur.

Behavior genetics is a field of study in psychology that covers topics involving twin, adoption, and family studies. In each of these three realms, the theory of nonshared environment impacting individuals has always reigned supreme. For example, it is known that when monozygotic twins are reared apart later in life, their unique experiences shape their psychopathologies, regardless of the fact they both share the same genetic makeup and that they both experienced the same original family environment. Beattie argues that a pair of depressed parents will create a depressed child; that is, their outward symptoms will overwhelm their child and carry over into his or her psychopathology, causing the child to suffer from the same disorder. Although this certainly may happen in some families, it is simply not plausible to make an umbrella statement implying that the shared experiences among family members will always result in shared personalities, behaviors, and mental disorders.

Other studies are adoption studies; for example, adoption studies of antisocial personality disorder show that if a biological parent passes down his or her antisocial disorder through genetics, then the child will suffer from the disorder even within the adoptive environment, away from the biological parent. This further supports the theory that nonshared environment is important: adoptive family environments are typically nurturing and supportive, which gives no “reason” (according to the shared environment perspective) for an adoptee to develop an illness such as antisocial personality disorder.

The genetic composition of human beings also needs to be considered when studying the causes of depression among individuals. The argument of genetics versus the environment is an ancient one, and to this day researchers are unable to determine anything beyond a 50:50 ratio of influence regarding both factors. Beattie’s paper discusses the role of social factors leading to depression, but he does not assess genetic predispositions for depression. He points out that if one spouse experiences a depressive disorder, it is likely to affect the other spouse and cause him or her to experience the same disorder. What about the theory that depressed people seek out other depressed people? Who is to say that one person’s disorder can actually create another person’s disorder? Genotypes oftentimes play a very important hand in the behaviors of mentally ill individuals.

Gender is also mentioned as an important contributor to depression; more specifically, the paper discusses the experiences of the female sex. Once again, though, it lumps the experiences of females into one shared category, without taking into account the unique experiences of each individual. It is also relatively unfair to say that the more intelligent a female is, the more likely she is to “out-smart” her male peers, so that her risk for experiencing depression is higher than average. So on average, would all female students typically perform at a lower level than male students?

On the whole, Beattie’s paper on the interpersonal causes of depression is highly engaging and well-structured. The only important element missing is that of genetics and nonshared environment as they relate to depression.

Peer Commentary

Marital Problems: Do They Cause Depression?

Dessislav M. Ivanov
Rochester Institute of Technology

One of the most important social causes for depression is a stressful marriage. Gregory S. Beattie, the author of “Social Causes of Depression,” acknowledged this as a factor but did not stress its importance. When a marriage is not working it turns into a stressor, which often causes depression among females and leads males to alcohol abuse. Stressful marriage is the leading cause for depression among women (Whisman, 2001). Women genetically predisposed to stress are three times more likely to develop depression than women not genetically predisposed. Even though this is not a social factor, it is important to point it out as a possible predisposition to depression based on social factors.

If one partner suffers from chronic depression, it is very likely that the other partner will develop depression as well. Even when the depressed partner overcomes this depression, it is common to relapse if he or she has an unsatisfying marriage. Marital distress can also occur if the distressed partner’s behavior triggers negative effects in the spouse. In the large proportion of couples experiencing marital distress, at least one partner is clinically depressed, adding even more stress to the other partner (McCullough, 2003).

These inter-partner problems could even lead to physical abuse. Such abuse is generally perpetrated by the male but in some instances it comes from the female.

In short, the stress-generation model of depression can help to explain the two-way relation between marital discord and depression. Marital distress can lead to depression and depression can lead to marital distress.

The hopelessness model is important as well, but Beattie did not comment on it. Hopelessness can be seen in people who believe that there is nothing they can do to either better themselves or change an outcome of an important event. People who believe that future control is possible experience anxiety in an effort to gain control. If one is convinced that one is helpless in controlling important events but is not sure if the bad outcome will actually occur, a mixed anxiety/depression syndrome will probably surface. In contrast, if one is convinced that bad outcomes will definitely occur regardless of what one does, then helplessness becomes hopelessness and depression sets in. It is normal to become depressed if one believes that there is nothing one can do to prevent a negative outcome (Gable & Nezlek, 1998).

Stressful life events are a big cause of depression; even though they were discussed by Beattie, their importance was insufficiently stressed. Stressful life events include divorce, job loss, and poverty. Life events can be seen as dependent or independent. Independent life events happen due to causes outside of one's control--for example, a hurricane taking one’s house or being laid off from work. Dependent life events are ones for which one holds a partial responsibility; generally these are more likely to cause depression than independent life events. One can easily overcome independent life events by blaming the negative outcome on outside factors, hence removing the responsibility from oneself, making it easy to deal with and not turn the negative outcome inward.

Generally if a man does not feel capable of providing for his family he might view himself as not worthwhile, and this can lead to depression. Depending on the culture, a man must be able to support his family. If he feels that he is incapable of doing so and believes he is a failure, it is inevitable for depression to set in. This is true in capitalistic and developed countries, having its origins in the prehistoric past.

Social factors and stressful life events not only cause people to become depressed but also in many cases predispose people to depression by becoming contributory stressors. Thus, in effect, they can become both diatheses and stressors.

Peer Commentary

Social Support Networks and Their Role in Depression

Nathanial C. Lowe
Rochester Institute of Technology

For most individuals with a healthy social support network, major stressors in life can be more easily handled. A proper support network consists of a reinforcing family and friends who can help the affected individual to work through any problems, such as the death of a family member, loss of a job, major injury, or any of a number of other stressors that can contribute to psychological illnesses, such as depression. For individuals with an undeveloped social network, or those with a negatively reinforcing social network, these major life events can cause greater harm to the individual because of a lack of support that most individuals have. An underdeveloped social network cannot handle the pressure of an individual looking for support, and a negatively framed social network can actually reinforce thoughts of hopelessness, failure, and being worthless. Without this support, it is more likely for that individual to develop symptoms of depression (Wade & Kendler, 2000).

In Beattie’s paper, a considerable amount of evidence was given that indicated the importance of social interactions within one’s family. It was stated that the depression of one family member, and especially that of a parent, can lead to depression in other family members, namely the children. Depression in circumstances such as this can be attributed to many things, such as marital problems, difficulty adjusting to a new family member, and poor social connections being formed with depressed family members. In more normal conditions, a healthy social support network, as is found in many families, can help a depressed individual cope with the problems that he or she is experiencing. The absence of such a network can cause the individual facing a difficult situation to be unable to cope with the problem. When a parent is depressed, the children in the family, experiencing problems of their own as children often do, can further depression in the parent by getting in trouble with the law, performing poorly in school, or any number of other things that a non-depressed parent would normally be able to cope with. If that parent is depressed, it may not be possible for the parent to help the child face his or her problems, which increases the likelihood of the development of depression in children. The lack of social support from a parent can be a factor in the development of childhood depressive symptoms, or in clinical childhood depression (Billings & Moos, 1983).

In other circumstances, an otherwise normal family can increase the chances of children becoming depressed by creating a negative social dynamic within the family. Beattie offered an example of a study that found Asian-American students having higher depression rates in an academic social setting, which was attributed to their status as a minority and the stress that stems from this. Another factor could be the social structure of families from different cultures. In many instances, children, especially children of immigrants or from families overseas, are pushed very hard by their parents to perform highly in school so that they can get a job and help support their family. These children exhibit perfectionistic tendencies, usually based on heavy-handed controlling by one or both parents. Kenney-Benson and Pomerantz (2005) found that parents’ heightened use of control, especially that of the mother, caused perfectionistic traits in children, which led to heightened depressive symptoms when the child was not able to achieve highly. The parent’s high expectations for their children, seen often in families of foreign students, or in this case the families of Asian-American students, has been shown to lead to depressogenic thoughts and early symptoms of depression.

Oftentimes some of the brightest individuals of a community are affected by depression. Beattie discussed a study showing that the more intelligent a girl is, the more likely it is that she will be depressed, which was attributed to breaking social norms and the stress that can create. In other similar studies looking as the social causes of depression in highly intelligent individuals, this same phenomenon has been attributed to poor social networks of highly intelligent and creative individuals. One study measured the intelligence and creativity of adolescent students and found that among students of high academic ability the most creative and intelligent often had a depressive attributional style (DeMoss, Milich, & DeMers, 1999). This depressive style has been shown to negatively affect other social relationships in a person’s life. A study conducted to determine the relation between social support and depression found that individuals who are mildly depressed often end up creating situations where friends can no longer take the constant assurance-seeking and cut off the relationship with the individual, leading to more serious depression (Wade & Kendler, 2000).

Now certainly there are many other causes for depression that are more difficult to understand, even within the many studies that have been conducted. However, the social support network is a vital piece of the prevention of depression. When that network malfunctions, it does not guarantee the onset of depressive symptoms, but it makes it much easier for the individual to develop a mood disorder like depression. A more thorough study of these social networks may someday reveal further intricacies of the effects of these familial and social networks on depressed individuals.

Peer Commentary

Positive Effects of Others on Those Who Are Depressed

Linda A. McDonagh
Rochester Institute of Technology

Certain situations and people can have a huge impact on the path that a depressed person goes through. Beattie showed the negative effect that depressed relatives and healthy relatives have on each other. However, there is also a positive side to the interaction of relatives with one another. These people can help to prevent and lower depression in others. The help and support of others increases the happiness and sense of belonging in the world.

Family relationships help decrease depression and the rate of suicide compared to those who are single. The partner helps the person to get through situations that are hard to survive on one's own. One knows that there is someone there to get one through times of sadness. Those who are single go deeper into their depression because they do not have the comfort and support of a loved one. An intimate relationship increases happiness in a person, because one knows that one is not alone in the world. A confidence boost from the partner helps to decrease the sorrow and states of sadness in a person. Relationships are a way to help prevent loved ones from falling into a deeper depression (Burns, Sayer, & Moras, 1994).

Those who do not have depression tend to relate more with those that have it because it is a common emotion that everyone has experienced. They relate to their situations a lot more, because they have had the same feelings and thoughts (Crocker, Kayne, & Alloy, 1985). People who do not have the illness are more giving and understanding to those with it because they relate to their feelings. Everyone knows that life is stressful, especially because a lot is expected from people in this society. Those who are put into similar situations and environments tend to feel the same stress and anxiety.

Families also have a positive influence on their relatives when it comes to depression. When the family is there for the person, they can help to reduce the person's stress and anxiety by showing their love (Martire, Lustig, Schulz, Miller, & Helgeson, 2004). A family can help their relative by getting one the help one needs so that one does not fall into a deeper depression. Families can also lead their relatives into a deeper state of sadness, as Beattie pointed out in his paper. However, they are also very helpful in protecting their family members and help to improve their state. Their love for the relative gives them a sense of belonging in the world.

Often people are the reason why those who are depressed slip into a deeper depression. However, the family also helps those around them to have a positive outcome from depression. They also help to keep those who are depressed feeling more confident about themselves so that they are happier. Families have to be careful that they do not push their relatives over the edge with too much attention, because this can create a burden on them. Specific relationships with the depressed individual, such as relatives and spouses, help determine the outcome of the illness. Family members can learn to help the person in a positive way and improve his or her lifestyle.

Author Response

My Undying Perspective on Depression

Gregory S. Beattie
Rochester Institute of Technology

I would like to thank those who took the time to write a peer commentary on my paper. Depression is a topic that has far-reaching effects, and obviously I was not able to cover each and every consequences of the disorder.

Haimowitz brought up the notion of shared and nonshared environment and the impact of genetics on depression. This was a field that I did not cover in my paper, and thus I am not an expert on the matter.

Ivanov discussed the stressors related to marriage. This information was useful and could have been incorporated better in my paper.

Lowe took a different approach than Ivanov, elaborating on social support. However, I felt that social support is a topic of its own and should be discussed more in depth as a separate paper as my classmate, Corey Clark, did. I do agree that social support can play a role in depression, but it should be considered separately.

McDonagh talked about the brighter aspect of my paper that was not included. My paper was on the negative interpersonal causes on depression, whileas McDonagh went into depth about how interpersonal relationships can decrease depression. My viewpoint on this is that everything has a positive and a negative side to it. I simply chose to discuss the negative aspect, given that it was a strong, dominant influence on depression.


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