What Causes Clinical Depression?
Learn About the Many Risk Factors for Common Mood Problems

A course for the general public and for professionals.

Clinical depression is one of the most widespread and potentially disabling health conditions of our age. It is caused by multiple factors - none of which seem essential and only a few of which are sufficient to bring about the full condition. A huge body of research examines the various risk factors for depression.

In this course, we look at the various risk factors associated with the mood disorders - particularly major depression. We use an expanded version of the Floating Diamond model presented in the "What Is Depression?" course: The Depression Map. This is based on the model that forms the basis for the presenter's book on the subject, Your Depression Map.

We range from biological and historical causes, through lifestyle and situational factors, to the often-neglected area of meaning. Along the way we look at the literature concerning diet, cognitive vulnerabilities, emotional tolerance, social isolation, exercise, and more.

The course also provides a basic primer in depression biology, investigating the idea that there may be a biochemical underpinning to depression. Although this is almost certainly a part of the picture, the science to back the idea up is often lacking, and researchers increasingly suspect that long-held ideas may not be as useful as was once thought.

Students receive an extensive notes package providing summaries of each lecture. Those taking the course to learn more about their own condition can follow along with an informal inventory of the causes covered.


This course does not constitute treatment for depression or any other concern. It is designed for informational purposes only. Anyone with a history of depression should consult a healthcare professional for the assessment and treatment of their condition.

Depression is an enormous topic, and in this course we are mainly focussed on the risk factors for clinical depression. We do not go into detail about treatment approaches - these will be covered in other courses.

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You can read more about the course, preview some of the videos, and decide whether you want to take it.

You'll get a series of nineteen video lectures, 4 to 14 minutes long, plus a 34-page downloadable PDF notes package so that you can follow along with the course.

Course Curriculum

Lecture 1: Why worry about causes?

Depression is one of the most prevalent and expensive of health-related problems. Its causes are numerous - and understanding the risk factors for a given person can help in the selection of elements of treatment. This course reviews our understanding of these risk factors. The course is not treatment, nor a substitute for professional care, but may be an assist for those attempting to understand their own mood difficulties.

Lecture 2: Notes to accompany this course

This is the complete 34-page set of pdf course notes on all of the (other) lectures in this course.

Lecture 3: Three lenses - Classifying risk factors for depression

In this course we will use three intersecting classification systems for depression risk factors. 1) Controllable versus uncontrollable factors. 2) Vulnerability factors, precipitating factors (triggers), and maintaining factors. 3) The Depression Map - an examination of where the factors appear in a person's life and experience.

Lecture 4: Biological factors - Genetics, gender, and age

In this lecture we consider long-term biological factors associated with depression. Genetics: People do appear able to inherit a vulnerability to depression, but we do not inherit the depression itself. Gender: Although depression is extremely common for women and for men, more women experience it. Age: First onset of depression can occur at any time but peaks in the 20s, declining somewhat thereafter.

Lecture 5: Historical factors

Elements of a person's early experience can contribute to depression vulnerability. These include the quality of the bond with parents, the occurrence of childhood trauma or abuse, parental depression, and parental alcoholism or drug dependence.

Lecture 6: Illness and substances

Illness can contribute to depression in two ways: by impacting on the quality of a person's life, and by directly producing symptoms that mimic those seen in depression. We discuss how many medications can also produce symptoms related to depression. Finally, we consider the link between alcohol and other recreational drugs and depressed mood.

Lecture 7: Major life events

Perhaps the largest body of research on depression vulnerability has to do with the recent history of major life events - particularly events involving loss. Here we look at the Social Readjustment Rating Scale and the problem of stress intersections.

Lecture 8: Other situational factors

In addition to major life events, what other factors in a person's life situation might put them at risk for depression? Here we consider socioeconomic status, income disparity, financial stress, urban versus rural living, contact with the natural world, media overexposure, work stress, and more.

Lecture 9: Social factors

We are a social species, and many of our problems and dissatisfactions have to do with the quality of our relationships with others. Here we consider the influence of isolation, social support, being in a long-term relationship, relationship discord, relationship breakdown, bereavement, and poor assertiveness skills.

Lecture 10: Dietary factors

If our bodies are machines, could their functioning be influenced by the fuel we use? Here we consider the role of poor diet in vulnerability to depression. We also take a look at the idea that nutrient supplementation may have a role in depression treatment - though the research in this area is often not as good as we might like.

Lecture 11: Sleep disorders

Depression is a documented cause of sleep disorders, but can problems sleeping also contribute to depression vulnerability? It's clear that the answer here is yes.

Lecture 12: Fitness and activity level

There is an enormous body of research looking at the link between physical fitness and depression. It appears that poor physical condition is a risk factor for depression, and that regular exercise is an effective treatment.

Lecture 13: Cognitive vulnerability, part one

Depression affects thinking - both the quality of thought (concentration, memory, and decision making) and its content (positivity/negativity). But ongoing pre-depression patterns of thought can also predispose a person to depression. In this and the following lecture we consider some of the cognitive risk factors that have been identified.

Lecture 14: Cognitive vulnerability, part two

We continue our discussion of cognitive vulnerability factors, including learned helplessness (a belief that our actions have no real impact on the things that happen to us) and mental potholes (vulnerabilities that turn into triggers when we encounter situations that echo earlier difficult periods in our lives).

Lecture 15: Emotional factors

Depression is defined in part by its impact on our emotions - but the way that we handle emotion can also influence the likelihood that we will experience depression. Some people appear to have lower "set points" for emotion than others. Some ignore the useful feedback function that emotions can provide. And some fear certain emotions - which may only serve to magnify them.

Lecture 16: The loss of meaning

Meaning is the great missing element of much treatment for depression. It is clear that the loss of a sense of meaning in our lives can put us at greater risk of depression - and that dealing with issues of meaning may be crucial for many people during the recovery phase.

Lecture 17: A brief introduction to brain biochemistry

Odd that we have managed to get this far in the course without much discussion of the brain. But in order to consider the issue of biochemical causes of depression we first need to understand a bit about how the brain works. This lecture provides the quickest (and most basic) introduction to brain biochemistry that you've ever seen.

Lecture 18: Biochemical imbalance?

In the popular press we often hear that depression is caused by a biochemical imbalance. But what is meant by this term? An imbalance between what and what? And how are medications, often prescribed as a way of influencing brain biochemistry, thought to work? This is a difficult topic, because popular understanding may not match the present state of research on the issue.

Lecture 19: Course summary

In this final lecture we review the course and the three ways of classifying causes that we discussed in Lecture Three. We take a look at the risk factory summary in Appendix 2 at the end of the downloadable handout and suggest that, if you are depressed yourself, you could go back over the notes to fill out the summary to take to your physician or other health professional.

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