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Is Depression Contagious?

Entire families can be depressed together and not even know it. But healthy communication can prevent you and your loved ones from getting down.

Like the flu, depression is a highly contagious disorder that can be transmitted socially. It is especially apt to take up residence in a household, jumping from one family member to others. And just as individuals can be depressed, so can whole families, often without their awareness.

Depression in a family can suck up all the energy of a household, turning a home into a black hole of swirling negative emotions. Usually, such depression is disguised as physical illness or a general air of irritability and negativity. Family members withdraw into their own spaces, in the protective custody of a TV or computer. And pessimism, sarcasm or silence becomes the dominant style of family communications.

Families can prevent depression from taking up permanent residence and commandeering their interaction patterns by:

  • Being on the lookout for signs of depression in a family member.

    The sooner you spot it, the faster you can help the individual out of it and contain the risk to others. In young children, it may take the form of defiant behavior but not overt sadness. In school age children, depression can be underachievement and withdrawal from school and social activities. In teens, it is often disguised in smoking, drinking or drug use, in older people as lack of appetite for food or life.

  • Developing skills around positive thinking and positive talking in the household.

    Families often inherit a negative thinking style that carries the germ of depression. Typically it is a legacy passed from one generation to the next, a pattern of pessimism invoked to protect loved ones from disappointment or stress. But in fact, negative thinking patterns do just the opposite, eroding the mental health of all exposed.

    When Dad consistently expresses his disappointment in Josh for bringing home a B minus in chemistry although all the other grades are As, he is exhibiting a kind of cognitive distortion that children learn to deploy on themselves—a mental filtering that screens out positive experience from consideration.

    Or perhaps the father envisions catastrophe, seeing such grades as foreclosing the possibility of a top college, thus dooming his son's future. It is their repetition over time that gives these events power to shape a person's belief system.

Instead, set up guidelines for healthy communication. Make everyone aware of the common types of distortions:

  • Catastrophizing, exaggerating the harmful effects of a disappointing event
  • Personalizing, seeing yourself or your child as the cause of a disappointing outcome
  • All-or-nothing thinking, reducing complexities to absolutes, like knowing you're not perfect but seeing yourself as a loser
  • Overgeneralizing, interpreting one disappointment as part of an inescapable pattern
  • Filtering, focusing on negative aspects of an experience while ignoring the positive side

    Make an agreement among family members to be habit breakers for each other (at home) when someone slips into negative thinking. Remind each other and support each other.

  • Make sure that your family has an ongoing supply of positive experiences and a bank of them to call on when times get rough. Negative experiences carry so much psychological weight that positive experiences need to seriously outnumber negative ones. A ratio of 2 to 1 is realistic when you start to build positive interactions, and 5 to 1 is the long term goal.

    Inventory positive and negative interactions as a family. When you eat breakfast together, how does it go? Is it on balance a positive or negative experience? What action plan does the family need to use to build more positive experience and lessen the negative? For example, encourage activities in which family members include each other in various combinations. Just going to the movies together can be a highly positive shared event.

  • Get together often to survey emotional needs for the next week. Ask, what do you need to make this work for you?

    That way challenges can be anticipated and met with minimal stress on the whole family. What emotional needs do family members have in order to get done what is on their schedule? If Sara has a big test on Friday, then one parent might plan to be especially available on Thursday evening for support.

    Checking in on people's well-being and not just on their activity schedule contributes to a sense of connectedness that is a major buffer against depression at every stage of life. Paying as much attention to family feelings as family activities is one of the best protections you can use to combat family depression.