Why Do Women Get Depressed?

As noted in an earlier article, women have a far greater chance of becoming depressed than men. Why? That’s the $2 million question. If that were answered, a lot more women could be spared a lot of agonizing pain. No one fully understands what causes depression-in women or men.

Most likely it’s a combination of factors that causes the onset of depression–the result of genetics, biochemistry, and psychological conditions. Studies show, for example, that women who are genetically inclined to depression are more apt to become depressed after a trauma in their life. The genetics factor is one that impacts both women and men. Depression runs in families, often for generations. Over the past decade, scientists have determined that the neurochemical deficiencies seen in depression are transmitted genetically from parents to offspring.

For any animal to function effectively, the nerve cells in the brain must communicate. Each nerve cell is separated by small gaps. “Neurotransmitters” send messages to a “receptor” on the other side of the gap. It works like a jigsaw puzzle: each neurotransmitter fits into a conforming receptor. When the level of neurotransmitters is low, messages break down and communication slows considerably. From research, it seems that depression is strongly related to what’s taking place at these connections.

Clearly, social factors also impact on a woman’s tendency to have depression. It is not surprising that more women (and–as we saw in the last article-adolescent girls) have low self-esteem, tend to put blame on themselves for others’ actions, and take on an excessive amount of responsibilities-mother, wife, housekeeper, employee, den mother, caregiver to ailing parents, etc., etc., etc. And if women begin to feel the warning signs of depression, they are so busy taking care of everyone else they don’t take care of themselves. It’s a wonder that their aren’t even more depressed women!

Depression is often associated with a trauma or major change in one’s life, which makes the person more psychologically susceptible to the disease. Mary, age 31, was raised in a household where her mother and father both suffered from depression. She married at an early age and went through a divorce several years later. She then began rearing her children on her own-with little or no financial support from the father. Although having minor depression a few times during her life, she hadn’t experienced a major depression.

Then her son became very ill and had to be hospitalized several times, with no assurance that he would recover. Mary started declining-getting more and more anxious, frustrated and depressed. Her son finally improved, but the damage was done. She admitted herself to a psychiatric center for treatment.

Mary is not alone. In a study of 680 pairs of female twins, recent stress (a divorce, illness, bereavement, or legal problem) was the best predictor of depression. Other studies have found that as many as 86 percent of major depressions were set off by a life crisis.

Sometimes a depression is not caused by any trauma, but triggered by a physical illness or condition. As women know, it may be associated with hormonal changes after childbirth or during menopause. Many researchers have attributed the increased rates of depression among women to the female reproductive system and the menstrual cycle. It’s a depression that can hit anywhere in a female’s life–be it the teenage girl who can’t stop crying, the new mother who finds herself unable to cope, or the middle-aged woman who is going through menopause.

Scientists have recognized the correlation between depression and hormones for a number of years. This connection makes good sense since hormones affect neurotransmitter activity, and neurotransmitters affect the timing and release of hormones.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) has become a commonplace condition-you even see TV commercials about it. Women experience a number of problems from mood swings to physical discomfort. A number of studies reveal that women with PMS have lower serotonin levels right before their periods than women who don’t have PMS. There’s another condition called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). PMDD symptoms can cause tremendous distress and include depression, anxiety, and loss of energy, as well as changes in appetite and sleep patterns.

Hormones also play a major role in postpartum depression. Up to several months after giving birth, a woman may go into a deep depression. It may become too difficult to take care of herself let alone her newborn. Women who have suffered from major depression in the past are more susceptible to this illness. Do not confuse postpartum depression with the “baby blues,” which occurs a couple of weeks after delivery; this is a milder form of depression that goes away within a few weeks.

Menopause is also a trigger for depression, especially if the woman has suffered from the illness in the past. Women are at greater risk for developing depression in the five years before and the five years after menopause when they have experienced prior depressive episodes or have PMS. Menopause is a time of changing hormones, which affect brain chemicals related to mood.

Another hormone, melatonin, may be associated with season affective disorder, which is three times more common in women than in men. Researchers are now studying the effect of melatonin with SAD, as well as the correlation between melatonin and other hormones.

Clearly, it’s difficult to point to any one factor as causing depression in women. Biological and social influences not only coexist but most likely reinforce one another.