New Study: Risk Factor for Depression Can be 'Contagious'

Author: Kate Garry

Gerald Haeffel

According to a new study from the University of Notre Dame, a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression actually can be “contagious” to others and increase their symptoms of depression six months later.

The study, conducted by Notre Dame Psychology Professor Gerald Haeffel and former Notre Dame undergraduate student Jennifer Hames ’09, is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Research on depression has shown that people who interpret stressful life events as the result of factors they can’t change and as a reflection of their own deficiency are more vulnerable to depression. This “cognitive vulnerability” has been shown to be such a potent risk factor for depression that it can predict who is likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they have never been depressed before.

Though cognitive vulnerability has been shown to solidify in early adolescence and remain stable throughout adulthood, Haeffel theorized that it may be malleable or “contagious” during major life transitions when our environments are in flux.

He tested this hypothesis by tracking 103 pairs of randomly assigned college roommates, all of whom were first-year students. During their first month on campus, the roommates completed a questionnaire that measured their cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same questionnaire three months and six months later, and also completed a measure of stressful life events.

The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researcher’s initial hypothesis: The results revealed that the first year students who were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability; those assigned to roommates who had low initial levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced decreases in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the three-month and six-month assessments.

The most striking finding showed that changes in cognitive vulnerability impacted the risk for future depressive symptoms: Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first three months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at six months than those who did not show such an increase.

“Our findings suggest 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 intervention,” according to Haeffel.

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context, which means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”

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