Can you CATCH depression? Being surrounded by gloomy people can make you prone to illness, say scientists

  • Living with a depressive person can trigger condition
  • Experts say results suggest that changing surroundings could be used as a treatment

06:21 EST, 19 April 2013


06:59 EST, 19 April 2013




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and the emotions associated with it can be contagious, according to a new study.

Researchers have found that the gloomy
mindset of students vulnerable to depression can be catching, making their
friends more likely to suffer the condition six months later.

The research follows studies showing that people who respond
negatively to stressful life events – interpreting them as the result of
factors they can’t change and as a reflection of their own shortcomings -  are more
vulnerable to depression.

Contagious: The study found that those who had close contact with people suffering from depression were more likely to develop it themselves

Contagious: The study found that those who had close contact with people suffering from depression were more likely to develop it themselves

This ‘cognitive vulnerability’ is such
a strong risk factor for depression that it can be used to predict who is likely to experience depression in the future.

Doctors Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer
Hames, of Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, said that this vulnerability
seemed to establish itself in early adolescence but remain stable throughout

They decided to investigate whether it
might be ‘contagious’ during major life transitions such as starting
at university.

They followed 206 room mates who had been paired up randomly, all of whom had just started their first year of university.

The results revealed that students who
were assigned to a room mate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were
likely to ‘catch’ their room mate’s style of thinking and develop a vulnerability to
depression themselves.

Depression can be an incredibly isolating experience

Depression can be an incredibly isolating experience

The reverse was also true. Those
assigned to room mates who were not prone to depression
experienced decreases in their own levels negative thinking.

The result showed that students who developed an increase in depressive thinking in the first three months of college, had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at six months than those who
didn’t show such an increase.

Dr Haeffel said it provided ‘striking
evidence’ for the contagion theory.

He added that the findings suggest
that altering a person’s environment could be used a part of a treatment for
depression because a person’s vulnerability fluctuates over time.

He said: ‘Our study
demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane
over time depending on the social context.

‘This means that cognitive
vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.’

The research is published in the journal Clinical
Psychological Science.


Depression and anxiety are the most common mental disorders in the UK.

It is thought up to 7 million Britons experience some of depression each year.

Depression is far more severe than just feeling sad.

often experience feelings of despair and anxiety, develop insomnia,
changes in appetite and in extreme cases suicidal thoughts.

Depression can occur in anyone. Chronic stress, traumatic events, drug and alcohol abuse, a family history of mental health problems and, as this new study shows, even being surrounded by people who are negative can trigger the condition.

Treatment usually involves a combination of anti-depressants and psychotherapy.

The comments below have been moderated in advance.

Quite simply, some people are NEVER happy. Having looked at pictures of my (now ex) husband (bipolar/manic depressive) alongside previous girlfriends, none have genuine smiles but a sadness in their eyes, I now know why. I spent 10 yrs trying to make life taking care of him, trying to make things easy but all I heard was complaints and had a miserable time. I now have a new boyfriend who gives me compliments, which costs nothing, and I now cannot think why I let myself be ground down for so long. Some people never change or get better.


glos-bristol, United Kingdom,
19/4/2013 13:45

Got a neighbour who has “latched”on to me and bombards me with all her tales of woe and health problems.I feel like shooting myself after listening to her.I know I should be a good Christian and support her but I find myself avoiding her part of the street.If she does not see me for a while she will telephone me (thank God for caller ID)and bring me up to date.

Brit abroad

19/4/2013 13:39

Well yes… don’t they say show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are?


Triangle de, Bermuda,
19/4/2013 13:24

Nooooo! Are these underworked, overpaid psychologists saying that being surrounded by the doom laden will eventually get you down, as in ‘misery loves company’ ? Thinking that these useless twits actually get government funded (taxpayer) grants to produce this quackery is making me depressed.

South Utsire

Nottingham, United Kingdom,
19/4/2013 13:24

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

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