Depression sociology

It can be easier to focus on the individual causes for depression because they seem easier to tackle. Although social circumstances are less amenable to change they are fundamental to people’s vulnerability to depression and need to be taken into account.

Social circumstances matter

Human beings are social animals and require social connection as a basic survival need. Isolation and lack of social support – increasingly common in modern life – make it easy for depression to flourish. Poverty and depression are also strongly correlated, and being affected by stressful social events like unemployment or social upheaval raises the risk of depression significantly.

But not all poverty-stricken people are depressed and wealth is certainly no protection against depression. The social factors contributing to the depression habit spiral are more complex than this.

Lack of control

In research with animals, after prolonged failure to control stressful circumstances a creature develops ‘learned helplessness’ and gives up, demonstrating behaviour comparable to human depression*. It seems that part of the depressive effect of social circumstances may relate to how little control we have (or think we have) over the stresses in our lives.

Social comparison

Another strong recent theory* is that depression is a social phenomenon resulting from social comparison. Again based on animal research, this theory suggests depression more easily affects those who see themselves as inferior to others in their social context.

Social norms and values therefore have an important effect on individual identities and beliefs. If these norms and values are attainable by the majority, and tolerant enough to allow for individual difference, then negative social comparison will be reduced. The less attainable the norms, the more likely it is that a higher proportion of people will feel ‘not good enough’, making them vulnerable to depression.

Managing social factors

All these social factors fuel the depression habit spiral. While some of these conditions are unchangeable, many can be moderated.

For example, while we may not be able to change our actual social circumstances we may be able to re-examine our attitude towards our situation. We can change our perception of our level of control and of our social status. Most importantly, we can build better support networks and avoid actual or emotional isolation.

What are your social circumstances? Have you been affected by prejudice or discrimination because of unhelpful cultural values (such as racism or homophobia)? Do you need to build support networks? How much does your social context contribute to your feelings of being ‘not good enough’ and other depressed thinking habits? Can you find ways to feel more (realistically) in control of your life?

Choose the values you sign up to

We do not have to passively accept the dominant norms of our society or specific social group. We can critically examine the values of our society and can choose to reject those values which are damaging or unhelpful for us. See ‘A depression-inducing society?’ for more details.

Next: Framework for understanding depression

Take Action

Why me worksheet


A depression-inducing society?
Being ‘different’ as a student
Planning a life worth living