Experiences of depression and recovery in Australia

Views about causes of depression

When asked about what they saw as the cause of their depression, people we talked to identified many reasons. Although we have summarised these into four major categories, most people identified multiple causes. Only person we talked to, Linda could not identify a cause for her depression. She told us: ‘But for me there was nothing, you know? I had a wonderful family, I had everything I wanted and then I just, I just didn't feel happy and nothing, nothing was really good enough’.

External causes - social or situational

Interpersonal difficulties including family relationship problems, difficult interactions at school or work, prejudice, and non-supportive social networks were a common theme in many peoples’ stories. Many stories described the interplay between domestic, professional and economic concerns.
People also talked about growing up in ‘alcoholic families’ or families who struggled with chronic illness, about long term substance use, life decisions they regretted, stressful life circumstances or difficult experiences.

Stewart described a series of losses in his life as causing his depression. Particularly important was the loss of a caring stepfather, as Stewart's resulting grief was not acknowledged at the time. Susan talked about a number of losses building-up in a short time as contributing to her depression: ‘It was part of the loss that I experienced over this last little while. I lost my choir, I lost my job and my colleagues, and I lost my mother. So there are three really, really important things that have occurred in my life in short succession’.

Peter described depression as ‘such a broad thing’, adding, ‘I mean you've got reactive depression, you've got chemical depression. I mean essentially if you raised the living standards of all of these people that have got reactive depression you'd probably find that half of them will drop off the symptoms, you know, so that's a social problem’. Shaz described her strict upbringing, bad relationship decisions and substance use habits as causes of her depression. A few people said that their depression was due to working too hard for too long, as expressed by Ralph: ‘I blamed the fact that I was working too hard…I used to blame the fact that I was pushing myself too hard’. Other people we talked with who identified as gay, lesbian or queer cited homophobia and stigma associated with their identity and sexual orientation as contributing to depression for them.

Suzi had a difficult childhood living in a family where her mother’s serious mental health condition was never acknowledged. Growing up, she felt unsupported and emotionally exploited by her father. She experienced anorexia and in her adult life had difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Individual response to external events or situations

People often focussed on their internal, emotional reactions to stressful external events or situations as causing depression. Stories of diverse losses experienced in adulthood also featured in these narratives. many people talked about loneliness, linking this to unsatisfactory, broken or dysfunctional intimate relationships, lack of close family members or wider social networks, not having children, and being single. Bereavement was also mentioned by several people. Very often life was described as conditioned by loss. Jules, who went through a traumatic caesarean and whose husband later died in an accident, was voluntarily hospitalised for depression several times.

Psychological factors

People we talked to saw low self-esteem, poor body image, insecurity and a focus on performance (perfectionism or failure) as ‘predisposing’ people to depression. Negative childhood experiences and difficult life-events in adulthood were present in these stories though again, people often presented several interwoven factors as the cause. Childhood experiences had profound consequences for many participants, and often resulted in a pervasive sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem. Clinton and Paul talked about the long-lasting effect of suppressed childhood memories of sexual abuse, resulting in a lack of confidence in later life, a sense of guilt and what they felt was a failure to realise their full potential. Emotional or psychological abuse in childhood left similar scars. Bullying at school and its impact on self-esteem in later life featured as another theme.

Biomedical explanations

A few people attributed depression to a ‘chemical imbalance’ or ‘lack of serotonin’. As a result they believed depression was beyond their control. They described having a genetic predisposition to depression that was ‘triggered’ by unfavourable environmental circumstances. This idea of hereditary-based health problems usually underlined a sense of inevitability and therefore absence of personal responsibility for peoples’ feelings and actions. Some of those we spoke with presented their condition as an interaction between medical problems and their social context. A few people discussed causes of depression in conjunction with other health conditions, including other mental health conditions, cancer and diabetes. Others attributed depression to serious physical illness and corresponding medical treatment.

Colin had not anticipated the effects of prostate cancer on his sexuality and he found this hard to deal with. In addition, the lack of information about the consequences of his illness and treatment was upsetting.

Last reviewed January 2016.

Last updated January 2016.

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