Developmental Roots of Depression?



It has now been suggested, by two recent studies, that the mental disorder, depression, has developmental roots.

The first study, by Moore and colleagues (2012), focused on depressive rumination. This is the tendency to focus on things that have gone wrong, or will go wrong in the future, as well as an inability to visualize a solution to these problems. Rumination has been found to have a strong link to depression so much so that studies have shown talking therapies (counseling, CBT etc) can make depression worse – they cause people to focus on the problems instead of positive solutions.

The researchers compared identical twins to fraternal twins, aged 12-14, using questionnaires in order to measure whether they tended to stress over their problems or thought about possible solutions. In other words, whether they spent time thinking their problems through rationally, or whether they became lost in thought and internalization at the thought of not being able to solve their problems.

The behaviours labelled by researchers as “moody pondering”, or brooding over problems, was found to be more likely associated with depression. Reflection appeared to be helpful as a coping mechanism, possibly helping them move on from one problem and distract themselves with other things. “Individuals who have a greater tendency to to ruminate and a lesser tendency to distract are at the greater risk for experiencing depressive symptoms”.

This wasn’t it, however. It was also found that the link between ruminating and depression appeared to be based on genes. So, those who inherit a tendency to ruminate, also appear to inherit symptoms of depression.

From this it can be assumed that depression can be caused by the tendency to ruminate as an adolescent. I can certainly vouch for this, as I was a problem brooder as a teen. However, it can’t be as simple as this can it?

The second study, by Smith and colleagues (2012) also looked at the potential causes of depression. Their study focused on the association between depression, and “urgency” (a term used by psychologists to describe acting without thinking when faced with a strong emotion, or emotional situation).

The link they found was, indeed, surprising. They found that urgency seems to predict the involvement of a person in rash behaviours; such as drinking, gambling or smoking. These are driven by the tendency to take part in these behaviours without considering the consequences. It’s like acting on impulse, rather than considering long-term health or outcomes.

These impulses can lead to making poor decisions, which can be damaging to life goals, as well as not acting on impulses that you should. An example given by Smith et al is asking your boss for a promotion and a raise. Not asking your boss would eliminate any short term nervousness, but it comes at the cost of you long-term goal.

In their study they looked at fifth graders moving to middle school. Urgency in the fifth graders was found to be the best predictor of depression in sixth grade middle school, alongside being depressed already in fifth grade. This also stood strong after being controlled for gender, early onset of puberty, and early involvement with smoking, drinking and binge eating – all addictive behaviours that can lead to depression due to their negative effect. Their findings suggest that this impulsivity in the face of emotion can increase the risk of addictive behaviours as well as depression.

These studies have given more detail and insight into some of the well known psychological theories of depression. Rumination and urgency are two of many symptoms of depression, and they appear to be visible from adolescence in some cases. Perhaps tackling negative and impulsive behaviours in younger children could reduce the prevalence of depression in adults.


Written by: Philippa Berry

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Published on: 8th March 2013

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