Is Depression Contagious?

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH

Group of people around a circle talking with each other about Is Depression ContagiousDepression is a serious mental illness that can negatively affect the way you act, feel, and think. The condition can stem from prolonged episodes of stress. When you’re feeling stressed out, you may also begin to feel sad, anxious, angry, and defeated. This can eventually morph into depression, which could potentially cause or worsen your adrenal fatigue. Alarmingly, depressive disorders also seem to affect the people closest to you. Somehow, when one person becomes depressed, those around them start to experience similar symptoms. In fact, they may even become depressed themselves. This begs the question, is depression contagious?

Is Depression Contagious? Here’s What Science Has to Say

For years, scientists have been researching depression in college students due to the amount of stress experienced by a normal college bound teen. It was Notre Dame University that began to do research on “If depression is spread and caught by college roommates.” This study looked at something that was called cognitive vulnerability (CV) and depression. This study was designed to answer the question: Is depression contagious?

CV is a phrase that describes the person’s risk to becoming depressed. The college students who were most at risk were those that had suffered an illness, were facing their parents’ divorce, or simply moving away from home to college. The focus of the Notre Dame study was on a CV called psychological rumination. This is the tendency to reflect on their behaviors and their negative emotions and feeling. This type of reflection is compulsive and may even be described as obsessive. A person who tends to ruminate often has a bigger chance of becoming clinically depressed when they move away from home and go to college.

Friend is consoling the other friend who looks Is Depression ContagiousThe Notre Dame study then looked at roommates on campus. One person who did not have any signs of CV or rumination was paired with a person that had significant signs of CV and rumination. The roommates were observed over a period of time and then compared to the beginning CV assessment data. Over time the results indicated that both roommates’ CV concerns would increase over time. The roommate that was already showing signs of CV would get worse and the roommate not. At the same time, a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch also attempted to answer the question, is depression contagious? During their study, they observed 96 pairs of college roommates over a period of three weeks. Assessment was conducted on the participants’ anxiety; depression; negative life stress; negative and positive affect as well as reassurance seeking. In the end the contagious depression effect was found to have persisted when the baseline levels of both roommate negative life events and roommate depression were controlled. Furthermore, reassurance seeking was found to be a vulnerability factor for the depression contagion effect. In fact, it was found that the high-but not low-reassurance seeking roommates of the depressed target students experienced an increase in depression levels.

Now, you may ask again. Is depression contagious? Another study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found that it quite possibly is. This time, the study involved elderly adults and their spouses. Throughout the course of the study, it was found that older adults are more likely to experience depression if they reside with a spouse who is already depressed. Indeed, this is proof that depression can have an adverse effect on one’s social network.

Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch attempted to answer the question, is depression contagious? During the study, they observed 96 pairs of college roommates over a three-week period. Assessments were then performed on each participant’s anxiety, depression, negative life stress, positive and negative feelings, as well as seeking reassurance. In the end, the contagious depression effect was found to persist when baseline levels of both roommates’ negative life events and depression were similar. Furthermore, reassurance seeking was found to be a so-called vulnerability factor—something that plays an important role—of the depression contagion effect. In fact, it was found that participants with depressed roommates who often seek reassurance had increased levels of depression.

Is depression contagious and isolationSo, what does this mean? Is depression contagious? Another study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that the answer is possibly yes. This time, the study involved elderly adults and their spouses. Throughout the course of the study, it was found that older adults are more likely to experience depression if they reside with a spouse who is already depressed. Indeed, this is more proof that depression can have an adverse effect your social network.

Is Depression Contagious? Maybe

Let’s look at the question “Is Depression Contagious?”. Many people believe that depression is just something that you either have or don’t have, yet this is not true. The study of CV looks into the risk factors of becoming clinically depressed and researchers have come to the conclusion that depression or CV can in fact be “caught”. Moving away from home and being thrown into college life is enough for some college bound teens to become depressed. This depression can then be spread to their roommates.

This type of thinking is only logical. If you continue to spend time with a person that is depressed it is only logical that you too will begin to feel the creeping sensation of self doubt and depression. Although these statistics are true it is also true that someone with low CV will positively influence the roommate with higher CV. The roommate that is not showing CV will have to feel very confident in themselves in order to positively influence the other.

Is Depression Contagious Because of Adrenal Fatigue?

Young woman sitting on the floor and looking Is Depression Contagious and sadAdrenal fatigue is a condition that occurs as a result of prolonged or chronic stress. Typically, stressful episodes are addressed via the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system. The NEM stress response system is composed of six circuits and 12 systems. Among these, the neuroaffective circuit—made up of the autonomic nervous system, brain, and microbiome—can play an important role in your mood. In fact, all of these systems are dependent on neurotransmitters which work to balance your mood, emotions, and body.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers, including serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, histamine, dopamine, and many others, responsible for transmitting signals between neurons, allowing your organs to communicate with each other. Several of these neurotransmitters are also made in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract—the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain.

As long as stress is not prolonged, your body can maintain the proper balance of neurotransmitters. However, chronic stress can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies. If this happens, you can suffer from various physical and mental illnesses, including general malaise, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, impaired memory, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, and addictions. Moreover, there is a strong association between norepinephrine deficiency and/or serotonin and conditions such as anxiety, migraines, premenstrual tension, depression, bulimia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, restless leg syndrome, obesity, cognitive disorders, and more.

Once stress is detected, your body initiates an inflammatory response in an attempt to prevent this stress from wreaking havoc on your body. Typically, your adrenal glands produce the stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for managing inflammation and making sure runaway inflammation does not occur. However, with prolonged or chronic stress, your adrenal glands no longer produce enough cortisol to meet your body’s needs. As a result, your body may have significant hormonal imbalances, which can trigger Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). Once this happens, your body will no longer be able to effectively manage inflammation.

Furthermore, inflammation has been shown to be at least a contributor to mood changes, including mild forms such as a sense of feeling down to severe forms including depression. Depression is a medical condition that may require prescription medications. A healthy person with occasional sense of feeling down and sad, however, can do well with nutritional support. Especially inflammation in the gut. When the body falls under severe and continuing stress, the natural response, activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis increases. This puts so much pressure on the adrenal glands to continue secreting cortisol to fight the effects of stress that they soon reach a state of exhaustion. Too little cortisol is then available for the body to fight stress, leading to an increase in inflammation.

Under the comprehensive perspective of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) model of stress, the body’s systems interact to deal with stress. In this model, the inflammatory response and the neuro-affective response work to handle stress related depression that likely results from problems in the gut system. If inflammation persists, it can affect the ability of your gut lining to keep unwanted toxins out of the rest of your body. This is because an increase in inflammation can increase gut permeability. At this point, your body will not be able to fight off harmful substances as they invade your system. As a result, you simply get weaker. When this occurs, toxic substances can easily invade your body in a way that affects your mental and emotional state.

Typically, cells in the gut are held tightly together to prevent leakage. Stress can lead to leakage that increases inflammation that then increases depression. Toxins that trigger inflammation also trigger depression.

Once depression begins to manifest in the form of mood, it can affect other people around you. But is depression contagious? In a way, it is. This may be down to adrenal fatigue.

Is Depression Contagious? Instead, Perhaps Moods Are

xray of brain and the effect of Is Depression ContagiousLeaving home and entering the college environment can be stressful enough to begin the process of stress related depression. Becoming free from parental supervision and rules would seem to be a stimulus for increasing self-reliance and self-confidence. However, in some adolescents, the reverse is the result. Making their own decisions, coming under increasing peer influence, and the pressure of college work lead to significant stress in these teens.

The question of whether depression is contagious is fitting among adolescents who are typically surrounded by their social network. They share experiences, and some of these can cause negative moods. Alarmingly, a 2018 study published in the Royal Society Open Science found that moods can spread across social networks through something called ‘social contagion.’ Is depression contagious? Instead, perhaps your mood is.

Nonetheless, the longer these teens labor under stressful conditions, the more their bodies respond to the stressors. This sets in motion the cycle of stress leading to depression. This process is more likely to occur in students who are cognitively vulnerable . This vulnerability may have begun early in life and be a result of poor nutrition. Add in the effect of peer influence in areas like alcohol and/or drug use, and the probability of depression increases greatly.

© Copyright 2013 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Today, research out there suggests that depression experienced by one person can easily affect someone close to them. Other studies indicate that your mood, in addition to depression, is contagious.

Is depression contagious among friends