It’s fascinating how these threads grow and change. If you asking for, as you say, exact medical causes for depression, the answer may, well, depress you. No one really knows. What you can use, however, is some ammunition for the battle against your philosophy professor. (By the way, these philosophy types are highly adept at pushing buttons. I think in past lives most of them were typists or frustrated controllers in nuclear weapons silos. So beware their game.)
Now we can argue about things like what constitutes depression, why one should or shouldn’t be depressed, and so forth. But when you meet someone who is profoundly depressed (what shrinks call Major Depression), all the philosophizing seems a bit moot and indulgent. Anyway, one of the prevailing ideas about the biological correlates, underpinnings, or whatever word you want to use, for depression has to do with, as Nametag says, a deficiency of serotonin action. What’s that? Well serotonin is one among many different kinds of neurotransmitters, which are what brain cells use to talk to each other. Brain cells squirt out small amounts of these chemicals, which then diffuse over to the next cell and influence how it responds. Then the neurotransmitter is taken back up (or shall we say reuptaken) into the cell that released it. Thus terminates its action until more is released. Now if you inhibit the reuptake of these chemicals, they are out and about and active for a longer time. This is the principle behind the so-called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs—the first S being for selective, for reasons which will be clear anon).
So why do people blame serotonin? The two main reasons, as far as I can tell, are (1) various experiments have shown a decreased amount of this chemical and its metabolites in the brains of depressed people and other animals (e won’t go into how these experiments were carried out); and (2) these serotonin reuptake inhibitors seem, by golly, to work. In fact, per my understanding, pretty much only drugs that somehow inhibit serotonin reuptake have been shown to convincingly make depressed people feel better. But, you say, Prozac and Zyprexa have only been around 10 years or so. That’s true, but even the old antidepressants worked by inhibiting serotonin reuptake. It’s just that they weren’t SELECTIVE, which meant they acted in many other areas as well as, it seems, the pertinent ones (whereever those are). This caused a lot of side effects (tiredness, weight gain, dizziness, etc). As far as efficacy is concerned, the newer SSRIs are no better than the older drugs- they’re just easier to handle side-effect wise. (A recent addendum to the story is the development of so called SSNRIs, which work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin and noradrenaline- another player).
Well, what is this serotonin doing, why is it so important? Again, it is not known for sure. One theory is that serotonin helps maintain the plasticity of neural circuits. Huh? Without going into a lot of detail, brain cells (or neurons) are arranged in circuits, interacting in the aforementioned manner. Patterns of activity through those circuits correlate (I’m deliberately trying to use a neutral word here) with mental activity. At the risk of digressing, this is, I believe, the main point of the book Why God Won’t Go Away. That is, those guys are saying that a particular pattern of brain activity can be correlated with mystical experiences. We’ll leave the arguments about causality to chicken and egg people for now. Some of these circuits are pretty much fixed. Say, that’s why people with certain brain injuries can not regain some abilities. Other of these circuits, particularly those that underlie, uh, I mean, correlate with, complex psychological experiences are probably pretty fluid, that is, plastic.
But back to depression—It’s thought that, maybe, in a depressed person, their neural circuits have arranged themselves in such a way that activity through those circuits produces (or correlates with) depressed feelings. What they need to do is rearrange those damn circuits. But telling them that is about as helpful as Ronald Regan telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (dates me-depressing!). A sufficient amount of serotonin activity maybe necessary to keep the neural circuits loose enough to allow for rearranging. Thus, increasing its action allows them to in a happier manner.
But of course this does not work by chemicals alone. Experience, be it counseling, therapy, exercise, getting out and about, whatever, is also very instrumental in helping people get out of their funk. This is thought to be why antidepressants on their own do not work as well for more seriously depressed people as when they are used in combination with some sort of counseling or therapy That is, the extra serotonin action helps loosen the circuits, while the therapy helps people to see things from different angles, and thus nudges their neural circuits into a less depression-producing arrangement. But this is all speculative.
By the way, sickle cell disease is something a person is born with (i.e., it’s genetic). You can’t develop it later in life.