Depression networks: a systematic review of the network paradigm causal assumptions

Psychol Med. 2023 Mar 17;1-16. doi: 10.1017/S0033291723000132. Online ahead of print.


The network paradigm for psychiatric disorder nosology was proposed based on the hypothesis that mental disorders are caused by networks of symptoms that are themselves causally related. Researchers have widely applied and integrated this paradigm to examine a variety of mental disorders, particularly depression. Existing studies generally focus on the correlation structure of symptoms, inferring causal relationships. Thus, presumption of causality may not be justified. The goal of this review was to examine the assumptions necessary for causal inference in network studies of depression. Specifically, we examined whether and how network studies address common violations of causal assumptions (i.e. no measurement error, exchangeability, and positivity). Of the 41 studies reviewed, five (12%) studies discussed sources of confounding unrelated to measurement error; none discussed positivity; and five conducted post-hoc analysis for measurement error. Depression network studies, in principle, are conducted under the assumption that symptom relationships are causal. Yet, in practice, studies seldomly discussed or adequately tested assumptions required to infer causality. Researchers continue to design studies that are unable to support the credibility of the network paradigm for the study of depression. There is a critical need to ensure scientific efforts cease to perpetuate problematic designs and findings to a potentially unsubstantiated paradigm.

Keywords: Causality; depression; measurement; network paradigm; psychopathology.

Publication types

  • Review