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What’s the real reason behind depression?

How can we still be so unsure about a mental illness that causes so many people to suffer – and isn’t it about time we stepped out of the darkness?

Here’s an easy experiment you can do to see how little we really understand about depression. All you need to do is get a few friends together.

Start by asking them what causes heart disease. You’ll probably get a small number of fairly similar answers – eating badly, not doing enough exercise, smoking, cholesterol and so on. All accurate and all pretty well known.   

Next, ask what causes cancer. Again, the answers will probably all be fairly similar. People will probably mention things like smoking and being overweight again, and maybe spending too much time in the sun. You might hear about genetic causes, and even what happens to blood cells when cancer develops. 

But then ask what causes depression. The response to this one is almost always completely different. 

People might do that thing where you start to say something and then stop because you realise you don’t actually know what you’re going to say. They might talk about things like stress or losing someone close to you. Maybe someone will even share their own experience, or talk about depression being something to do with chemicals in the brain. But the usual response can be summed up in one word: confusion. 

Around one in five people worldwide will experience depression in their lifetime – and yet our knowledge of what causes it remains incredibly limited. Research can change this forever.

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The reason your friends will almost certainly struggle to give a confident answer is because confident answers don’t yet exist.

True, we do know a lot of the individual factors that can contribute to depression. A traumatic childhood seems to make people more vulnerable. Big life changes like break-ups, deaths and losing a job can be triggers too, and so can other mental illnesses like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you’re struggling with your physical health, that can also make depression more likely. Alcohol, drugs and a lack of sleep and exercise are part of the picture too. And it is true that you’re more likely to experience depression if one of your close relatives has had it – although no specific gene has been identified that guarantees you will experience depression. 

But the reality is that all of the things we think can cause depression are often just our best guess. We don’t understand how individual factors come together to put people at risk. And in many cases it’s still impossible to identify causes – which is why research is urgently needed to break through our ignorance.

This lack of clarity explains why current treatments are often based on little more than trial and error. Unable to predict with any certainty how people will respond to a medication or talking therapy, doctors recommend what they hope will work and then tweak things based on how people respond.

This has to change – and through research we can make change happen. 

At MQ, we don’t believe for a second that our lack of understanding means depression is a problem that can’t be solved. The reality is that mental health research has been chronically underfunded for decades, so it’s hardly surprising our understanding is so limited.

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Just 5.8% of all money spent on health research in the UK goes towards mental health research, and, per person affected, 22 times more is spent on cancer research than on mental health.

With stats like that stacked against us, it’s hardly surprising people look confused when you ask them what causes depression. 

But the last thing we’re about to do is sit back and accept a status quo that causes millions of people to suffer. Instead, we’re bringing together scientists from around the world to finally demystify depression. 

At MQ, we’re investing £1m to understand depression in young people – because depression usually starts early and can last a lifetime.

Our researchers are looking at how depression begins, who is most at risk and what we can do to provide the right support upfront. Their ultimate aim is to help predict and prevent depression before it occurs. With the right knowledge, there’s no reason that couldn’t be possible. 

The team is leaving no stone unturned. They’re using state-of-the-art brain imaging technology. They’re poring over existing research from all over the world, including studies of people who experienced depression when they were young and as adults.

In short, they’re doing everything they can to find the patterns that point towards a new understanding of depression, and which could transform the way we respond to this devastating illness.

Because it can’t remain that we simply accept the mystery that surrounds depression. We’re talking about one of the single biggest causes of disability worldwide.

So we’re ramping up the search for answers. We’re building the movement for mental health research. And, with enough support, we will get to a place where no one is lost for words when you ask what’s really responsible for depression.

Last updated: 17 October 2017

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Add your voice to demand progress for young people facing mental illness

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