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New study finds depression can be "contagious"

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study shows depression can be contagious

A particular style of thinking that makes a person prone to depression can actually be contagious by “rubbing off” on those close to them, increasing their symptoms of depression six months later.

Psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, conducted research for the study, which is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Studies show that when a person responds negatively to a stressful life event, interpreting it as a reflection of their own deficiency and something they can’t control, it leaves them more vulnerable to depression. This "cognitive vulnerability" is such a powerful risk factor for depression, it can be used to predict who is likely to experience a depressive episode in the future – even if that individual has never had a depressive episode before.

Individual differences in this cognitive vulnerability appear to form in early adolescence and continue throughout adulthood. However, Haeffel and Hames predicted it might be possible modify a predisposition to depression under certain circumstances.

They hypothesized that cognitive vulnerability might be "contagious" during major life transitions – when our social environments are in flux. Accordingly, the researchers tested their hypothesis using data from 103 randomly assigned roommates who had just started college as freshmen.

Within a month of starting college, the roommates completed online questionnaires that, among other things, were designed to measure cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. The roommates participating in the study then completed the same questionnaires three-months later, and again six-months later. In addition, they also completed a measure of stressful life events when they completed the questionnaires again three- and six-months later.

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The researchers found that freshmen randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to "catch" their roommate's cognitive style and develop further increased levels of cognitive vulnerability. Those freshmen assigned to roommates who had low levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced a decline in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the three-month and six-month assessments.

It’s significant to note that changes in cognitive vulnerability affected risk for future depressive symptoms, as roommates showing an increased cognitive vulnerability in the first three months, had nearly twice as many depressive symptoms at six months than those who didn't show an increase.

New treatment for symptoms of depression

The results of this study provide strong evidence in support of the contagion effect, therefore confirming the Haeffel and Hames initial hypothesis. Based on the results, they suggest that the contagion effect might be harnessed to help treat symptoms of depression.

"Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual's social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention," the researchers report. "Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy."

The results of this study suggest it may be time to reconsider how we think about cognitive vulnerability, according to the researchers.

"Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context," say Haeffel and Hames. "This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable."

SOURCE: G. J. Haeffel, J. L. Hames. Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression Can Be Contagious. Clinical Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/2167702613485075