Can You ‘Catch’ Depression?
We all know how easy it is to catch your roommate’s cold or flu, but what about his or her mood? New research claims that, in some situations, a depressed mood can be contagious.
The authors of the new study, which is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, based their hypothesis on the existing understanding of “cognitive vulnerability” — the characteristic of responding negatively to stressful life events. Such individuals may simply be more vulnerable to depression. It may also be that cognitive vulnerability is caused by a sense that their actions are the result of things out of their control.
Cognitive vulnerability has long been believed to solidify in adolescence and remain stable through the course of adulthood, but the authors of this study sought to show that cognitive vulnerability can fluctuate, especially during times of social change or environmental transition.
The researchers at the University of Notre Dame evaluated more than 100 pairs of randomly assigned roommates who had just started their freshman years at college — a time of social and environmental flux which can be stressful for many. Within one month of arriving on campus, each student completed an initial questionnaire of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same questionnaire 3 and 6 months later, and, at these times, listed particularly stressful life events that had occurred.
Students who had roommates with high levels of cognitive vulnerability, regardless of the presence of actual symptoms of depression, were more likely to acquire a higher level of cognitive vulnerability while living together. Likewise, roommates of students with low levels of cognitive vulnerability exhibited decreases in their own levels. And, the students who showed increases in cognitive vulnerability had more than twice the level of depressive symptoms at the end of the study. No association was found between depressive symptoms and stressful life events.
The authors of the current study assert that the social environment may be an integral part to cognitive treatment for depressive symptoms, either alone or in combination with other treatments. Overall, the authors claim that cognitive vulnerability is not as steady as once believed and does, in fact, fluctuate with life’s stresses. What is not clear is how to determine who will be the original “host” of a depressed mood and who will catch the contagion.
However, many conflicting reports regarding the contagiousness of moods have been published. Another study of college roommates found that anxiety and depression were only minimally “catching” and happiness was not at all contagious. The authors of that research claim that students deliberately avoid roommates with poor mental health and some roommates have generally low social interaction with each other.
Further, an analysis of the cognitive vulnerability of adolescents showed changes in depressive symptoms based on the symptoms of their peers. These authors did report increases and decreases in depressive symptoms, but they were not due to any contagion effects. Instead, normal socialization processes of adolescents, including peer selection and deselection, allowed for depressive symptoms to converge toward an average level of depressive symptoms across this age group.
Reports of contagious depression between parents and children have been reported, but many of these studies have been conducted among high-risk families and many more dynamics are at play in a parent-child relationship than in a roommate relationship which might influence mental health.
The current study, which does show a contagious characteristic of mental health, is far from conclusive regarding how to “catch” a mood from someone else. But, it might make people experiencing life’s stressful events think twice before surrounding themselves with negative or depressed people.
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Eisenberg D, Golberstein E, Whitlock JL, & Downs MF (2012). Social contagion of mental health: Evidence from college roommates. Health economics PMID: 23055446
Haeffel, G., & Hames, J. (2013). Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression Can Be Contagious Clinical Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/2167702613485075
Kiuru N, Burk WJ, Laursen B, Nurmi JE, & Salmela-Aro K (2012). Is depression contagious? A test of alternative peer socialization mechanisms of depressive symptoms in adolescent peer networks. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 50 (3), 250-5 PMID: 22325130