Is Depression a Contagious Disease?
Known Depression Risks
Depression is a generalized term that includes the potentially debilitating condition called major depression, as well as several other conditions such as minor depression and dysthymic disorder. Over the years, doctors and researchers have identified a range of factors that increase an individual’s chances of developing a depressive illness. Known factors in the onset of major depression include being between the ages of 45 and 64, not graduating from high school, having an African American or Hispanic ethnic or cultural background, having a multiracial or multiethnic background, having a history of unemployment or an inability to work, and being female or divorced. Known risk factors for the other forms of depression largely resemble the factors for major depression; however these conditions tend to appear in early adulthood and also affect a disproportionate amount of Hispanics.
Cognitive Vulnerability Basics
Cognitive vulnerability is a term that scientists use to describe certain emotional states and ways of thinking that contribute to a decline in some aspect of mental health. Examples of these thoughts and mental states include a repeatedly “down” or negative general point of view, a tendency to view specific events as negative or threatening, a tendency to view the past in a negative light, and a tendency to assume that things will go poorly in the future. Taken together, these tendencies essentially distort a person’s perspective on the self and others, and make him or her much more likely to think and act in ways that impair full participation in personal, social, work-related or school-related aspects of everyday life.
The level of cognitive vulnerability varies significantly from person to person. Although no one knows for sure, many mental health researchers believe that any given person’s level of susceptibility to mental and emotional negativity comes from a mixture of genetic, biological, and social or environmental influences. Generally speaking, an individual’s baseline degree of cognitive vulnerability starts to emerge during his or her early teenage years. Most researchers believe that this baseline vulnerability level remains more or less the same over the following decades.
Impact on Depression Risks
A number of previous studies have strongly linked high cognitive vulnerability to the onset of depression, according to a literature review conducted by the authors of the study in Clinical Psychological Science. In their own work, the authors wanted to determine whether cognitive vulnerability is “contagious” in certain conditions. In order to answer this question, they used a series of questionnaires to examine the mental states of 103 pairs of freshman college roommates at Notre Dame University. These questionnaires were specifically designed to gather information about the students’ levels of cognitive vulnerability, as well as detect the presence of any depression symptoms. The students filled out an initial questionnaire one month after beginning school, then filled out additional questionnaires three months and six months later.
After reviewing their data, the authors of the study found that students with average levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced a significant increase in their vulnerability levels when they lived with roommates who had higher-than-normal levels of cognitive vulnerability. At the same time, students with average levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced a significant drop in their vulnerability levels when they lived with roommates who had lower-than-normal levels of cognitive vulnerability. Critically, the students with increased vulnerability levels also experienced a near doubling of their risks for developing symptoms of depression.
The authors of the study in Clinical Psychological Science believe that their work proves that a person’s level of cognitive vulnerability can change considerably after early adolescence. In addition, they believe that their work proves that depression can act as a contagious disease, at least in certain circumstances. Critically, the study’s authors also believe that mental health professionals can take advantage of these facts and create new, “contagious” intervention techniques to reduce the chances for the spread of depression in various population groups.