Five surprising factors which are connected to depression

One of the things which I’ve learned as I’ve studied depression and mental health is that the connections to depression are stronger and more broad than any of us really are aware. I suppose this shouldn’t be that surprising: After all, nearly one in five Americans actively suffer from some sort of mental illness, and those numbers are only going up. This means that the connections with depression are tragically broader than most of us probably realize.

But, the connections with depression run deeper – and more surprising – than I think any of us are really aware.

I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how many things are connected to depression. Here are five such items, but with a note of warning straight out of an introduction to psychology class: Correlation does not equal causation. Just because something is connected to depression doesn’t mean it causes depression. The two are connected, but that doesn’t make them causational.

1) Air pollution: Here’s an interesting one. According to a study in England, children who live in high areas of air pollution are significantly more likely to have depression than children who don’t. It is certainly possible that pollution impacts brain development and causes depression, but it’s also possible that the same societal factors which lead to someone living in a polluted area have an impact on someone’s mental health.

2) Migraines: According to the American Migraine Foundation, people who have migraines are five times more likely to develop depression than people without them. Indeed, the more frequently someone has migraines, the more likely they are to develop depression. From a causational perspective, this makes sense, of course: Chronic disorders can have a significantly negative impact on someone’s health and state of mind. But, as the American Migraine Foundation notes, the direction of the link is not clear, and it’s certainly possible that depression can cause migraines, rather than the other way around.

3) Heart disease: This one is unsurprising, but there is a connection between heart disease and depression, and it seems to run both ways. According to the University of Iowa, “While being diagnosed with heart disease or having a heart attack may increase the risk of depression, depression itself may increase the chances of developing heart disease.” In other words, this relationship seems to run both ways.

4) Neuroinflammation: I’ve written about this one before but it is worth repeating: Inflammation of the brain appear together. That’s why anti-inflammatory drugs can help fight depression. Again, the direction of the relationship is at least somewhat unclear, but treating inflammation can help treat depression.

5) Vegetarianism: Of the five items I discuss here, this is the one that took me by the most surprise. A Psychology Today article linked being a vegetarian with depression, noting that there is ample research to suggest that the two are connected. As always, however: The direction of the connection is harder to suss out, and there is evidence to suggest that the two are not connected.

When depressed is caused by nothing at all

I have an interesting question for those of you out there who suffer from depression: What do you do when your depression is caused by nothing at all?

There are times – and I suspect that this is for everyone, not just folks who have depression problems – where I get depressed for no reason.  At least, none that I can think of.  I remember my therapist once telling me that there was always something lurking around in the back of my mind somewhere.  That depression is almost never caused by “nothing.”  I suspect that he is right, and that makes it even more frustrating.

I’d argue that this can often be worse than feeling miserable for reasons that you can identify.  Obviously, that depends on the reason you are down, but if there is a reason behind a depression or sadness issue…well, then you can actually deal with it.  When there’s no reason, it’s harder to grasp.  In instances like these, fighting depression is like pushing smoke.  It just can’t be done.

On instances like this, I come back to a conversation I had in a psychology class when I was in college:


Ahh, yes, the glass half full.  But, this one comes with a different spin.

I once had a Muhlenberg professor describe mental illness as a combination of genetics and environmental factors.  This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but hear me out.  Let’s say that the water already in the glass is your genetic predisposition to depression.  Additional water gets poured in as a result of environmental factors and other stressors, and when the glass overflows, bam, you are depressed.

In this metaphor, people who aren’t predisposed to depression are less likely to be depressed, but that’s because they have less water in the glass to begin with.  Those people can still get depression, but it’s gonna take a heck of a lot more water (life stressors) to get them there.  For others who have a history of depression or a genetic predisposition, it only takes a little bit of water to get the glass overflowing.

I agree with my psychologist – it’s never really nothing.  It’s always something – maybe something you don’t want it to be, maybe something you are ashamed or embarrassed by, but there is usually something bouncing around in your head which is going to push you over the edge into a depressive funk.

So, here’s my advice: When it’s nothing at all – when you are depressed, but have no idea why, try to ask yourself what’s truly on your mind.  Work?  Family?  School?  As best you can, within your own head, ask yourself those questions.  Create a judgement free zone and allow your heart and your head to tell you what’s really up.  I hope this doesn’t come across as new-agey mumbo-jumbo, but as helpful advice.  Sometimes, the best way to get yourself feeling better is to ask yourself the right question – even if you don’t really want to know the answer.

I hope this is helpful, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – for this one more than most!