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Clinical depression, world's leading cause of disability, affects 5-10% of Canadians. What about you?

UCalgary researchers develop innovative techniques and treatments to tackle debilitating illness


Depression is a serious mental disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. UCalgary researchers are developing innovative techniques and treatments to tackle this debilitating illness.

By Mike Fisher
March 7, 2017

Keith Dobson is a professor of clinical psychology who leads UCalgary’s Depression Research Laboratory and heads the Department of Psychology. When Dobson was a teenager, though, his family lived on a farm north of Edmonton, and his father had a drinking problem. The farm work began to slip. Things began to fray. His father became distant, staying to himself, and then increasingly absent.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Dobson was witnessing his father’s descent into depression. “Looking back on it, my father was significantly depressed,” says Dobson. “The extreme avoidance and isolation were the key features of depression that I would recognize now.”

The teen left for university in 1970, when he was 16, beginning a lengthy and celebrated academic journey that took him to the University of Calgary and to the forefront of depression research in Canada.

Depression has no single cause, symptom or treatment 

Dobson knows now that while everyone faces ups and downs in their lives, clinical depression is a common, devastating mood disorder and serious medical illness.

Approximately one per cent of Canadian men and two per cent of Canadian women are clinically depressed at any point in time and about five per cent of men and 10 per cent of women will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives, according to the Canadian Psychological Association in a public fact sheet prepared by Dobson. Depression is the most common mental health concern among women.

While depression casts a long shadow over society, it defies a uniform approach. There are various causes, multiple symptoms and separate treatments.

“You have to look at depression on a case-by-case basis,” says Dobson. “It’s like that old parable about the group of people with their hands on the elephant. We all see different sides of the experience and tend to focus on the ones we think are the most important. So psychologists will emphasize psychological factors.”

But there is no single cause for depression. Biological factors can include genetics, chemical imbalance in the brain and hormonal changes. Psychosocial risk factors can include early life experiences and events, negative thinking and behaviour styles, and inadequate social support.

Possible symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • sadness
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • changes in appetite, changes in sleep
  • changes in sexual desire, difficulties in concentration
  • a decrease in activities or social withdrawal
  • increased self-criticism or reproach
  • thoughts of, or actual plans related to suicide

Dobson pioneered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to treat 'ubiquitous and pernicious' clinical depression

Dobson has helped to pioneer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a treatment for depression now used worldwide, with his landmark studies and clinical trials. CBT helps patients identify negative thoughts and enables them to overcome them with strategies.

In New Frontiers in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Depression, he observes that clinical depression is one of the most ubiquitous and pernicious of the various forms of mental disorder, recognized as far back as Greek civilization and re-emerging in the Middle Ages, when melancholia was identified.

Webinar on clinical depression

Dobson is a member of the Implementation Advisory Committee with the Campus Mental Health Strategy and will be hosting a webinar on clinical depression on April 13, 2017 — sign up today. 

Join us for a celebratory day of events to promote mental health and wellness in our university family on March 7. For an up-to-the-minute event schedule, visit the Campus Mental Health Strategy website.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. If you think you need help, please visit resources here. If you think someone you know needs help, find more information here.