What is a depression risk score?

A depression risk score is a tool used to estimate an individual’s likelihood of developing depression. Having a high depression risk score indicates an elevated risk for developing major depressive disorder (MDD) in the future based on current symptoms and risk factors.

Why is a depression risk score used?

A depression risk score can serve several purposes:

  • Screening tool – A depression risk score questionnaire can be used to screen for possible depression in individuals who are not currently diagnosed.
  • Risk assessment – Determining an individual’s depression risk score can help quantify their risk of developing MDD in the future.
  • Treatment planning – Understanding an individual’s specific risk factors through their depression risk score can inform personalized treatment plans.
  • Research – Depression risk scores are used in research studies to identify participants at high risk of developing depression.

Overall, depression risk scores aim to identify individuals at elevated risk for depression so that preventive strategies and early interventions can be implemented.

What factors are considered in a depression risk score?

There are a variety of factors that may be assessed to calculate an individual’s depression risk score. Some of the most common factors considered include:

  • Depressive symptoms – The frequency and severity of depressive symptoms, even if they do not meet full diagnostic criteria for MDD.
  • Early onset depression – Having experienced early-onset depression before age 18. This increases risk of recurrence.
  • Family history – Having a first-degree relative with depression.
  • Trauma history – Exposure to traumatic events or adverse childhood experiences.
  • Medical conditions – Chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders.
  • Substance use – Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and tobacco use.
  • Biological sex – Being female is associated with higher rates of many types of depression.
  • Age – Depression risk appears to increase with age until midlife.
  • Marital status – Being divorced, widowed, or single correlates with higher rates of depression.
  • Socioeconomic status – Low income, education, and occupational status.

Additional psychological, social, and lifestyle factors may also contribute to an individual’s depression vulnerability. The specific combination of risk factors assessed can vary across different depression risk scoring tools.

How is a depression risk score calculated?

There are a variety of methods used to calculate depression risk scores. Some of the most common approaches include:

  • Summation method – Each risk factor is assigned a numerical score based on its severity or strength of association with depression. These scores are summed to determine the total depression risk score.
  • Regression model – A statistical regression model is used to weigh the relative contribution of each risk factor to depression risk.
  • Algorithm – An algorithm computes the depression risk score by following a sequence of steps integrating multiple risk factors.
  • Lookup table – Risk scores are determined using a reference table that links particular risk factor combinations to specific risk scores.

Additionally, depression risk tools may be self-report questionnaires focused on symptoms versus structured clinical interviews assessing known risk factors. The calculation methods also vary depending on whether short-term or lifetime depression risk is being evaluated.

Example of a basic summation method

Here is a simplified example of how a depression risk score could be calculated using a basic summation method:

Risk Factor Points
Female sex 1
Family history of depression 2
Trauma history 1
Chronic illness 1
Substance abuse 1
Age over 50 1
Total Risk Score 7

In this example, each applicable risk factor is assigned 1-2 points based on its relative contribution to depression risk. The total summed score of 7 would indicate high depression risk for this hypothetical individual.

What are some common depression risk scoring tools?

Many structured depression risk assessment tools have been developed and scientifically validated for research and clinical use. Some examples include:

Beck Depression Inventory (BDI)

The BDI is a 21-item self-report questionnaire focused on depressive symptoms experienced over the past week. Items are scored on a 4-point scale from 0 to 3, with higher total scores indicating more severe depressive symptoms. The total score categorizes depression risk as:

  • 0-9: Minimal symptoms
  • 10-18: Mild depression
  • 19-29: Moderate depression
  • 30-63 Severe depression

Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D)

The CES-D is a 20-item self-report scale focused on depressive symptoms over the past week. Response options range from 0 (rarely/none of the time) to 3 (most of the time). Total scores range from 0 to 60, with higher scores indicating greater depression severity:

  • 16 or higher: Significant depressive symptoms
  • Below 16: Few or no depressive symptoms

Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9)

The PHQ-9 assesses the frequency of nine diagnostic criteria for MDD over the previous two weeks. Items are scored on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 3 (nearly every day). PHQ-9 scores can also be categorized by depression severity:

  • 1-4: Minimal symptoms
  • 5-9: Mild depression
  • 10-14: Moderate depression
  • 15-19: Moderately severe depression
  • 20-27: Severe depression

Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS)

The GDS is a 30-item questionnaire used to identify depression in older adults. It uses a simple yes/no format focused on typical symptoms over the past week. Scores range from 0 to 30, with higher totals indicating more depressive symptoms:

  • 0-9: Normal
  • 10-19: Mild depression
  • 20-30: Severe depression

How are depression risk scores interpreted?

Interpreting depression risk scores requires considering the scoring range, severity categorization, timeframe assessed, and psychometric properties of the specific instrument used. However, some general guidelines for interpreting risk scores include:

  • Higher scores equate to higher depression risk versus lower scores.
  • Cut-off thresholds differentiate minimal, mild, moderate, and severe depression risk categories.
  • Changes in scores over time may indicate improving or worsening risk.
  • Comparing individual scores to population averages contextualizes the relative risk.
  • Consider other relevant factors not captured in the score.
  • Use caution interpreting scores in isolation without clinical judgement.

Risk scores should ultimately be viewed as an estimate of probability, not an absolute deterministic assessment. They provide supplementary information to enhance clinical decision-making regarding depression prevention and treatment.

What are some limitations of depression risk scores?

While useful, depression risk scores do have some limitations including:

  • May oversimplify complex disorder – Reduces risk evaluation to a single score.
  • Variability in predictive validity – Varies in accuracy predicting who will develop depression.
  • Snapshot assessment – Only assess risk at one point in time.
  • Self-report biases – Subject to individual biases in self-reporting symptoms.
  • May miss protective factors – Typically focus on risk factors, not protective factors.
  • Potential misuse – Risk of misapplying scores to individual patients.

No depression risk score is perfect or accounts for all variables that contribute to depression vulnerability. As such, they should be viewed as screening tools to complement clinical judgement, not replace it. Caution should be used applying general depression risk models to make high-stakes predictions for individual patients.

How can you reduce your depression risk score?

Strategies for reducing one’s depression risk score include:

  • Treat underlying conditions – Seek treatment for medical issues, trauma, or substance abuse problems.
  • Increase physical activity – Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise.
  • Improve sleep habits – Practice good sleep hygiene and get 7-9 hours nightly.
  • Reduce stress – Make time for relaxation and build resilience through mindfulness or yoga.
  • Boost social support – Spend time with loved ones and build meaningful connections.
  • Try psychotherapy – Consider cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy to learn coping skills.
  • Ask about medications – Discuss options like antidepressants with your healthcare provider.

A comprehensive approach combining lifestyle changes, skill-building, therapy, and medication when needed can help lower both short-term symptoms and long-term susceptibility to depression.


In summary, a depression risk score is a quantitative estimate of an individual’s likelihood of developing major depressive disorder based on their current profile of evidence-based risk factors. These tools can be valuable for screening, risk stratification, treatment planning, and research purposes. However, depression risk scores have limitations and should supplement clinical judgement when assessing and caring for individuals potentially at risk. Further research is still needed to improve the predictive validity of existing depression risk models. By understanding the intricacies of how these scores are derived and applied, clinicians can better leverage these tools to optimize depression prevention and personalize treatment approaches.

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