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Depression Risk Factor Can Be "Contagious," Study Finds

By Keiana Smith-McDowell, NAMI Intern

A new study suggests a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression can be contagious to others and increase symptoms of depression.

The study “Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression Can Be Contagious,” which was conducted at the University of Notre Dame, revealed that students with roommates with a proclivity to respond negatively to stressful life events were more vulnerable to depression even if they have never experienced a depressive episode.

For the study, psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hammes examined 103 college freshman roommate pairs. The roommates were all random assignments. Researchers conducted the study by having the pairs fill out online questionnaires for depressive symptoms and cognitive vulnerability when they first arrived to campus. Cognitive vulnerability is defined as the tendency to generate interpretations of stressful life events negatively. These negative responses have been shown to contribute to the development of depressive symptoms. They completed the same questionnaire three months later, and again six months later.

The findings published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science revealed that students who were randomly assigned to live with those who had high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability.

The researchers concluded that vulnerability to depression is contagious.

“It is important to emphasize that these results cannot be explained by participants’ and roommates’ levels of depressive symptoms or by the occurrence of stressful live events (neither roommates’ level of depressive symptoms nor their level of stress was a significant predictor of change in cognitive vulnerability),” the researchers wrote.

Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first three months of college, tested for twice the level of depressive symptoms at six months than participants who did not experience an increase.

The effect was particularly stronger under high-stress conditions.

“Our findings suggests 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 interventions,” the researchers stated.

Prior to this study, many believed that cognitive vulnerability remained stable once a person passed early adolescence. Haeffel and Hammes found that major life transitions, especially when a person is exposed to new social environments can alter cognitive vulnerability.

According to the researchers, this study is a step forward in further research and treatment about cognitive vulnerability.

Many resources are available for students and young adults including StengthofUs.org, which is an online community developed by NAMI designed provide peer support, additional resources, and inspire young adults to think positive and continue to achieve their goals despite their mental health issues.


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