Is Depression Contagious?

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A study by two University of Notre Dame professors suggests that spending time around someone who’s depressed can be more than just a drag; it could end up saddling you with the same condition.

The study, which followed more than 200 first-year students who’d been randomly assigned, in pairs, as housing partners, found that individuals paired with roommates whose depression stemmed from their “cognitive vulnerability” to stressful situations were more likely to develop the same symptoms than those who were paired with emotionally healthy students.

By contrast, some depressed students paired with roommates who handled the stresses of first-year college life well were likely to shake off many of their own negative symptoms.

The key factor, the study indicates, centers upon the type of a depression a person has. In the case of cognitive vulnerability depression, individuals don’t handle life changes well and view their circumstances as unchangeable or the product of personal failings.

In simple terms, negative thinking leads to cognitive vulnerability depression. The common-sense corollary is that hanging out with someone who’s a negative thinker increases the chance that you’ll become a negative thinker, too — unless you’re such a positive thinker that your influence starts to rub off on that depressed person you’re spending so much time around.

In the study, it took about six months for someone to go from happy to depressed, once they’d lived with a roommate already struggling with cognitive vulnerability depression. But signs of “contagion” were already evident after sharing living quarters for only three months.

“The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers’ initial hypothesis,” the study states.

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” wrote Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames, who co-authored the study. “This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”

In other words, a pessimist can think himself into a state of depression; but with changes in both his surroundings and his view of how to solve problems, he can think and act his way back out of it.

“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 study says. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”

Personal Liberty

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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  • Right Brain Thinker

    Interesting study. Its findings may have much relevance to many of those who frequent PLD—the “parrots” of the right wing talking points. They suffer from related conditions like “cognitive self delusion” and our old friend “cognitive dissonance”, and may find their illness reinforced and deepened if they spend too much time reading and repeating the rantings of the circular firing squads sites of the conservative blogosphere.

    Fortunately, there IS some small hope if this study is true—“a parrot can think himself into a state of
    depression; but with changes in both his surroundings and his view of
    how to solve problems, he can think and act his way back out of it”. I say small hope because “changes in thinking” are hard to come by for many.

  • Peter Barney

    Since FDR, just about every Dem., President has put us in a depression. Now Obama. Impeach Obama!

  • dan

    Now that IS funny, Peter….brought me right out of my funk…
    IMPEACH the enemies of the Constitution FOR the United States of America

  • JimH

    An optimist is someone who believes “things just can’t get any better”.
    A pessimist Is someone who is afraid they’re right.
    Remember, inside every silver lining, is a dirty gray cloud.

    • Right Brain Thinker

      And whether a glass is half full or half empty doesn’t matter, because all that matters is having more than the next guy?

      • JimH

        Hi RTB, It just means my drink needs to be topped off.
        The engineering student says it’s because the containment vessel is to large.

        • Right Brain Thinker

          And if you remember your Cosby, philosophy students walk around asking “Why is there air”? (and the PE majors say, “Everybody knows why there is air! It’s for blowing up basketballs, and blowing up footballs, and blowing up volleyballs”.

          • JimH

            Cosby nailed it so many times. He could take most anything and make it funny.