The debate on nature vs. nurture in terms of mental health is a longstanding one. In one camp, people believe that we are at the mercy of our genetic coding, with depression and anxiety running in families. Others believe that environmental factors are largely to blame, that what happens to us in our formative years will determine whether or not we’ll face mental health issues as adults.
According to studies, both sides are right. Nature and nurture both play a role in determining whether or not a person will develop depression or anxiety. Find out what the research says about how genetics and environment affect mental health as well as how to get help if you’re depressed.
Genetic vs. Environmental Depression
Is depression inherited or environmental? When probed about the nature vs. nurture debate, Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health told Reuters, “It is not a question of genes versus environment.1 It is a question of how genes interact with whatever the environmental factors might be. And that is probably true of all of the disorders that we call mental illness.” Several studies confirm his claim:
- A 2008 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that some variations in a gene that regulates the stress hormone corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH, could protect those who had suffered abuse as children.2 This study tested DNA samples from poor Black adults as well as wealthy white adults and found the same gene variations.
- In another study led by Notre Dame psychologist Gerald Haeffel, a gene associated with dopamine played a role in whether a child developed depression.3 Boys who had “especially rejecting mothers” and a specific form of the dopamine transporter gene were at higher risk for major depression and suicidal ideation, indicating that psychosocial interventions to increase dopamine activity in the brain may lower depression rates for at-risk youth.
- Similarly, a 2003 study from New Zealand found that people with a short version of a gene that relays the chemical messenger serotonin were more likely to develop depression after a stressful life event.4
- When it comes to anxiety, findings are similar. A 2001 twin study found that genetic factors played a “significant role” in how a person faced anxiety-triggering events.5 If a subject had a parent with depression or anxiety, they were much more likely to also develop symptoms of depression or anxiety when faced with such events as a loved one leaving home or a parent losing their job.
How to Know if You’re Depressed
Major Depressive Disorder, or clinical depression, is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.6 It affects more than 16.1 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. While everyone feels down from time to time, clinical depression is persistent and often severe enough to interfere with relationships, work, and day-to-day life.
Symptoms of Depression Include:
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Feelings of sadness, numbness, or hopelessness
- Outbursts of anger, even over small matters
- Sleep disturbances
- General fatigue
- Appetite or weight changes
- Anxiety or restlessness
- Ruminations over past failures
- Difficulty concentrating
- Suicidal ideation
- Unexplained physical ailments like frequent headaches or stomach aches
COVID-19 and Depression
During the COVID-19 pandemic, prescriptions for antidepressants spiked as well as suicidal ideation among young people.7,8 While research on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the brain are still underway, there is evidence that the virus may be connected to depression in a few different ways.
In one study, researchers found that being infected with COVID-19 increased the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder like anxiety or depression.9 Even more, people with psychiatric disorders were 65 percent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19.
But being infected with COVID-19 isn’t the only risk factor for developing depressive symptoms. The pandemic brought significant life changes to everyone, infected or not, with unpredictable lockdowns, heated mask debates, fear and worry about getting sick or our loved ones getting sick, and job losses. All of these environmental factors can trigger anxiety or depression, especially in those who are predisposed to these mental health issues.
When and How to Get Help
Speaking to a therapist or other healthcare professional may be your first course of action if you are struggling with anxiety or depression, especially if you are having difficulty with everyday activities. You can reach the mental health organization SAMHSA at 1-800-662-HELP to talk to someone immediately.
While antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication can offer relief for some, these drugs consist of chemicals that may cause undesirable side effects like dry mouth, nausea, appetite changes, and more. An alternative to these prescription drugs is Brillia, a non-prescription homeopathic medication that contains no chemical ingredients and will not cause harmful side effects. The active ingredient in Brillia consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, a neurotrophic factor that is involved in neuroplasticity and the regulation of a number of cellular processes.
Similar to the studies cited in the first section that linked gene mutations to risk of depression, studies show that the S100B protein is yet another genetic biomarker for depression.10 People with depression and anxiety are found to have higher levels of S100B, which works like a key in the brain, binding to a specific target to unlock symptoms like irritability, stress/anxiety, restlessness.11 The active ingredient in Brillia works by attaching to the S100B protein and modifying it so that it cannot unlock these symptoms. This process occurs in a highly targeted manner so that no other systems in the body are affected. The medication is safe for children as well as adults and does not have contraindications with other medications or supplements.
Brillia works best in combination with healthy lifestyle factors, like following a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, controlling your screen time, and practicing mindfulness. Whether you are genetically predisposed to depression and anxiety or not, tweaking your lifestyle to reduce stress and promote well-being can help you nurture an environment that will support you through all life’s unexpected events.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.