Depression is a mental disorder that affects more than 350 million people across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s the leading cause of disability, a major contributor to global disease, and it leads to suicide — and some people may be prone to it more than others.
Actor-comedian Robin Williams' recent suicide gave this idea some traction, that the disorder has a personality. Williams was a recovering addict diagnosed with depression, and he had recently sought out treatment after a relapse. Many a headline read that his career in comedy influenced this outcome, which isn't totally off-base. It's not totally right either.
“The directionality [in a statement like this is] a little wrong,” Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, told Medical Daily in an e-mail. “I sometimes opine that the tool of the comedian — to turn the dark or difficult or complex into something ‘palatable’ or funny — can lead to an association between depression and comedy, but being a comedian does not make someone depressed.”
Dr. Moe Gelbart, executive director of the Thelma McMillen Center for Outpatient Chemical Dependency at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., told Medical Daily depression and suicide are rooted in meaning. If a depressed patient commits suicide over their financial problems, it isn’t actually because of their financial problems. It’s because of the meaning they gave those problems, Gelbart said.
Before you can understand the types of people who may be prone to depression, it’s important to understand what causes the disorder in the first place. WHO, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that the disorder is a complicated combination of different social, psychological and biological factors. Though, Gelbart breaks it down into two, basic categories: a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is what antidepressants are prescribed to correct, and a reaction to a stressful or traumatic event. The latter is where the idea depression has a personality comes from.
“We know that individuals who are depressed tend to be higher in a personality trait labeled ‘neuroticism.’ which reflects a tendency to negative mood and worry,” Durvasula said. “There may be a chicken-egg issue, that if we measure the personality of a person who is depressed then they are more likely to endorse more ‘depressive’ traits. But keep in mind while personality would never cause depression, it could be a risk factor, and perhaps result in more depressive reactions to stressful stimuli.”
12 Types Of People Prone To Depression
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found transgender people fit the minority stress model, which Medical Daily previously reported includes the health disparities among sexual minorities are a result of stressors induced by a hostile and homophobic culture. Transgendered participants expressed signs of clinical depression, anxiety, and somatization. “A significant proportion of transgendered individuals have had histories of trauma, and often since an early age had to struggle with the isolation of gender identity issues, fear, and often prejudice, discrimination, and sometimes violence,” said Durvasula. “All of these factors create a lifetime burden that can make them more vulnerable to depression.”
After transgendered people, teenagers who have had family in the military have been found to experience more depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts than their peers without family in the military. Veterans themselves are also predisposed to depression, namely those who have been deployed and find themselves having to integrate back into their previous life.
Then, similar to Williams, creative types have been associated with an increased likelihood of developing depression. CNN reported Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Wolf appeared to all suffer from clinical depression. Sylvia Plath made several attempts at suicide, with her novel The Bell Jar believed to be heavily influenced by her personal struggle.
“It is quite possible that some [creative types] may spring from making sense of the world in a unique way from an early age. However, it is not always easy to be a creative person,” Durvasula said. “It is often not considered a ‘safe’ route and, as such, these individuals may not get familial or societal support for their career or educational choices. It can feel isolating since it is not a normative choice, and that lack of support or the feeling that one has to buck the tide to get to a goal. It may also place creatives at greater risk for depressive symptoms.”
In the same vein, a 2002 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found 74% of introverts made up the depression population. And a perfectionist personality has too been linked to depression and anxiety.
Generally speaking, according to the CDC, women, African Americans, Hispanics, people with no more than a high school education, have been divorced, and are over the age of 45 are more likely to meet the criteria for major depression.
Say No To Stigma
Despite the evidence of some people and personality types being associated with depression, that doesn’t mean those who don’t fit in those categories won’t develop depression. And if that’s the case, it’s OK. “Depression is an illness and it is nothing to be ashamed of,” Durvasula said. “You cannot ‘will yourself’ out of it. A person cannot be ‘blamed’ for being depressed any more than you can blame them for having other diseases.”
Put another way: If a depressed person and non-depressed person were to run a marathon race, the depressed person is fully capable — they’re just running with a 100-pound weight on their back, Gelbart said.
The stigma surrounding depression, and mental illness in general, has gotten better, but it’s not completely gone. A larger reason for this, to Durvasula, is its historical connection to “madness.” She still finds there is a tremendous lack of empathy for those who have received a diagnosis, in which people tell those depressed to “just get over it.” It’s an illness like breast cancer, and no person would even think to give a cancer patient that same advice.
However, the real problem with the mental health stigma is that it prevents patients from seeking the treatment they need. As it stands, 60% of people who need mental health service don’t get it. People suffering from depression, as believed by both Durvasula and Gelbart, can recover. At the very least, Gelbart adds, symptoms can lessen and occur with less severity if managed properly. A recent study Medical Daily reported on found that the best management is a combination of antidepressants and cognitive behavior therapy.
Many times people ask Durvasula how they might help someone who is depressed. Her answer? Get them help. Depression, again, is manageable and does not have to be suffered in silence. It’s not something that disappears after a great workout or good night’s sleep or even great nutrition. It requires treatment. Patients with high blood pressure take pills to lower the numbers back in their favor — and depressive patients should be the same, Gelbart added.
As for the loss of Robin Williams, Durvasula and Gelbart take note of the conversation it’s started. More people are discussing depression, suicide, and how each can be prevented. Though that’s not to say it’s a perfect conversation. “One of the more dangerous things I hear is, 'He had everything. Kids who loved him, a wife who loved him and lots of money'," Durvasula said. "Instead of giving the person 'something to live for,' it can actually leave them feeling more guilty, more worthless because despite all of that they still feel hopeless. Too often we try to 'cheer people up' who are depressed, but that’s like trying to stop someone from bleeding using a joke. It just doesn't work."