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Is Depression Contagious? New Findings on how Mental Health Evolves in Social Networks and Populations

James Niels Rosenquist, M.D., Ph.D., and Daniel Eisenberg, Ph.D.

Can certain aspects of mental health can be considered ‘contagious,’ or spread between social networks? Recent research suggests that certain health behaviors, such as smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption, can spread across a population through personal relationships and/or in a group context. Dr. Eisenberg explains that psychology is interested in looking to see if positive attitudes are more or less contagious than negative attitudes. In naturalistic studies interviewing college roommates, studies have found little support for contagion of happiness, moderate contagion for anxiety, and significant contagion for depression, but only in males. Interestingly, the depression correlation for female roommates was actually found to be negative. While it cannot be concluded that having a depressed roommate is necessarily ‘beneficial,’ it is understood that women often show an increase in empathy for those who are anxious or depressed, which is a vital component of positive psychology. Dr. Rosenquist discusses social networks and how the concept can be used to frame an understanding of how depression and mental health may be socially influenced. He focuses on the idea of “ego vs. alter,” in which the ego is the person or group being influenced, and the alter is the person or group doing the influencing. However, this is a two-way street, and the way we influence others, as well as how we are influenced, depends less on the quantity of social networks we are part of, and more upon the emotional quality of these relationships. Unsurprisingly, people’s beliefs and actions tend to be highly influenced by their peers. Studying these social network connections is very important because the spillover effects of mental health treatments have become more evident in the past few decades, so the idea of contagion in psychology could drastically alter how individuals, as well as groups of people are diagnosed and treated for mental disorders. Dr. Rosenquist looks at data from the Framingham heart study, a longitudinal study including broad measures of physical, behavioral, and mental health, to further discuss the idea of how depression might “spread.” Implications for mental health treatment, stigma, and policy are discussed.

 

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