Depression Contagious? Or, Just A Flawed Study?

A new medical study suggest that depression may, in some sense at least, be contagious:

The idea that your mood is affected by those you spend time with is probably not news to you.

But what if we told you that something as serious as depression — a chemical imbalance in one’s brain that can immobilize some — can be triggered by being around others who exhibit depressive behaviours.

A recent study by psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames from the University of Notre Dame suggests that university students who live together can pass on their depression, through a mental process known as “cognitive vulnerability.”

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” the researchers write in their paper.

Cognitive vulnerability – a term used to describe a particular world view where people assume stressful life events are out of their control and occur because of their own deficiency — is a significant risk factor for depression, the researchers say. Experiencing cognitive vulnerability makes individuals more likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they have never had a depressive episode before.

There is, I think, just one slight flaw with their study:

To test their idea, they followed 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs, all of whom were in their first year of university.

“Freshmen are an ideal sample for testing the hypotheses because they are experiencing a major life transition that involves a significant change to their social environment, are at the peak age for developing depression and can be randomly assigned to a roommate,” the researchers write.

The participants completed an online questionnaire that measured cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms at the one-, three- and six-month mark. They also recorded any stressful life events at the three- and six-month mark.

The results reveal that those who had a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and also develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability. The effects were evident at both the three-month and six-month mark.

Well maybe it’s because pretty much all college freshman are emotionally vulnerable? Quite honestly I can’t see what value a study like this has for the population as a whole

FILED UNDER: Health, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But what if we told you that something as serious as depression — a chemical imbalance in one’s brain that can immobilize some — can be triggered by being around others who exhibit depressive behaviours.

    Well speaking only for myself and it is a sample size of one, but… Yeah.

    Of course, I have struggled with depression on occasion during my life, so there is a predisposition factor too. But I had one buddy back when I was 23-4 who had several life problems: an ailing mother who needed daily care, a heroin addicted (coke too) girlfriend he just could not get over, etc. Nicest guy in the world, very intelligent and hard working, and fun to hang out with, at first. But then he started slipping into a more and more depressive state. The harder I tried to bring him out of it, the more I felt myself being sucked down into it. Finally, I just stopped seeing him.

    I hated to do it, because I really liked him enough that there was little I wouldn’t do for him, but it was a matter of survival.

    About a year later, I ran into his girlfriend at a bar and she told me he took off for Texas. I know he probably hated the idea of leaving, but I suspect it was a matter of survival for him too.

  2. APL says:

    I agree with Doug on this. I believe that true clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. You can however become depressed from stress, loss of a job. or loved one, or other things in life. That type of depression can be short, or longer depending on the personality involved. I also think that being in downer environment for a very long period of time may bring on a change in brain chemistry in some people and lead to permanent depression.

  3. john personna says:

    I’m sure this isn’t the only research done on the idea. And of course what you do when you don’t like an experiment is design another one, which you think better isolates the question. Then you compile studies.

    Maybe I’m just expecting too much science in a political blog, but these things are not really solved by opinion.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    Maybe I’m just expecting too much science in a political blog, but these things are not really solved by opinion.

    Really??? Shocking! 😉