- Depression can be contagious, especially if we have a tendency towards it in the first place.
- Contagion seems most likely to occur among family members, partners, close friends and colleagues.
- We need to protect ourselves from 'catching' depression when spending time with a depressed person.
Lucille had told the college for which I am counsellor that she was feeling deeply depressed. It was nearly the end of term, and her father was arriving from New York the next day to take her home to see a psychiatrist. I had been asked by the college to see her before she left.
She said she no longer felt motivated by anything, yet none of the questions I asked led to expected answers. Yes, she was enjoying her course. Yes, she had made some good friends. She was up to date with all her coursework and didn’t struggle to get work in on time. She wanted a career within the field she was studying.
Gradually a story emerged. She was an only child, felt the burden of expectation, and had always, to her memory, been anxious to do well. Still, she had thrived at school and was part of a strong group of friends. However, something had happened there two years previously, which, it now seemed, had dramatically changed her outlook on life. Two friends at the school had tried to kill themselves.
Their final year, with stressful exams and a lot riding on them, had taken its toll, with many of the students struggling to keep pace. Lucille’s closest friend had taken an overdose; a boy in their group had tried to hang himself—fortunately, both had been found in time.
Lucille hadn’t been struggling but, as she admitted, she had caught the mood. She wanted to be happy but she found herself wondering what the point of anything was. It later emerged that, when Lucille was a child, an aunt had killed herself by jumping off a bridge, and an older cousin she was close to hanged himself.
Much research has indicated that depression can be contagious. In a review of studies published last year, Lisiê Paz and colleagues wrote, “Emotions can spread like an infectious disease across social networks” and the probability of an individual becoming discontented increases with the number of discontented people that they are around. “This indicates that the social network is a potential source of both positive and negative emotions. Furthermore, emotional contagion seems to occur mostly between family members, partners, roommates, close friends, or co-workers that have strong ties and frequent contact.”1
Conditions such as depression and anxiety, and features of them such as loneliness, are also thought to spread in the same way, they report, citing evidence from a study that found that roommates of depressed college students experienced more depressive symptoms themselves, after three weeks of living together.
The authors suggest the cause is neurocognitive and is based on our tendency towards automatic mimicry of those we are close to—healthy for normal child and social development, but with a definite potential downside.
Other researchers have found that college students randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability (their term for patterns of thought that make people more vulnerable to psychological problems) were likely to catch their roommate’s cognitive style and develop it themselves. Those who did so went on to develop significantly greater depressive symptoms than others.2
Meanwhile, Danish researchers have shown that people whose partners were on antidepressants had a 62 percent chance of going on to use antidepressants themselves,3 while another study found that older adults are particularly likely to become depressed if living with a depressed spouse.4 Indeed, living with an older depressed spouse may be comparable to living with a spouse who is demented.5
Not all researchers buy into the emotional contagion explanation for depression, however. One Finnish study found that adolescents initiated friendships with those who showed similar levels of depressive symptoms to themselves and moved away from those whose levels of depression became unlike their own6—thus, by the company they kept, potentially protecting themselves from depression if they did not have it, and feeding depression if they did.
It strikes me as likely that Lucille, with her tragic experience of suicide within her family, could easily be drawn towards friends who also questioned the point of existence, whether or not contagion was directly involved.
I didn’t have the chance to work with Lucille, as she was swept away to New York the next day, but I hope she will be helped to inoculate herself against succumbing to depression around her and find meaning again for herself.
I do, however, recall being consulted by a man named Leon, whose young adult son was in deep depression and refusing to seek help. Leon himself had had severe depression 10 years previously and had gotten himself out of it, although he couldn’t remember how—a shame, as this would have been a powerful resource for the future.
Now it pained him to see his son in a similar state of despair and he also felt powerless to help him. He feared sinking back into depression himself and wanted advice on how to stay out of it.
It was a wise course to take. We were able to work on ways for him to distance himself from the depression while still empathising with his son; avoid the depressive tendency to resort to self-blame; let negative thinking go; make sure he gave himself sufficient self-care; and take whatever practical steps he could to help his son, alert to any chink of opportunity and drawing encouragement from small successes. These approaches, especially embedding them through guided visualisation and empowering stories, helped Leon a lot.
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1 Paz, L V, Viola, T W et al (2022). Contagious depression: automatic mimicry and the mirror neuron system – a review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.12.032
2 Haeffel, G J and Hames, J L (2014). Cognitive vulnerability to depression can be contagious. Clinical Psychological Science, 2, 1, 75–85.
3 Kristensen, T B, Pfeffer J et al (2022). Does depression co-occur within households? The moderating effects of financial resources and job insecurity on psychological contagion. SSM Population Health Journal, doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2022.101212
4 Benazon, N R and Coyne J C (2000). Living with a depressed spouse. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 71–9.
5 Schulz, R, McGinnis, K A et al (2008). Dementia patient suffering and caregiver depression. Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders, 22, 170–6.
6 Kiuru, N, Burk, W J, et al (2021). Is depression contagious? A test of alternative peer socialization mechanisms of depressive symptoms in adolescent peer networks. Journal of Adolescent Health, 50, 3, 250–5.