Is depression contagious? Can negative emotions, depressive symptoms, mental health issues and mental health conditions be transmitted from person to person?
It seems like a silly question at first. Depression doesn’t make you cough, and it doesn’t leak out of your saliva or other bodily fluids. It’s not a virus, a bacterium or an addictive narcotic.
It’s not contagious or easily transferred from one person to another…right?
There are some valid reasons someone may wonder if depression is, in some way, transferrable or contagious.
We all know that once-happy couple where one person got sick or sad, and suddenly they both did. We’ve all seen siblings who fall into similar emotional health patterns. The same goes for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters.
When you think about it, those connected to depressed people do seem more likely to become depressed themselves. So, what gives?
There are many ways you could get depressed, but scientists don’t really have a firm understanding of how or why depression happens.
Still, this blog will discuss whether depression is contagious, and if so, how someone can reduce their risk of “catching” contagion of depression.
Understandably, lots of folks wonder if depression is contagious. But unlike the common cold, it’s not something you can catch — at least, not like a virus.
Is contagion of depression a thing you should worry about? No. Depression is not and has never been contagious. And while we understand the logic behind this assumption, depression isn’t something you get from other people like an infectious disease.
Depression and depressive disorders are mood disorders characterized by down feelings, negative emotions, changes in your sleep, exercise and other physical health patterns, and in more severe cases, an increased risk of suicide.
It affects people differently based on their unique circumstances and the type of depression they have. For instance, a person with major depression might be bedridden for an extended period with a lack of motivation, and seasonal depression may make someone buy a new weighted blanket every November.
But they didn’t touch a germ-ridden door handle 10 days before coming down with depression. In fact, the cause of their depression was likely in motion much, much earlier than a result of “mental health contagion.”
There isn’t one (or even several) official causes of depression but rather a list of risk factors that drastically increase your chance of becoming depressed.
Genetics are at play in the prevalence of depression. Both your family history of depression and the environmental factors of your upbringing are linked to your risk of depression.
Meanwhile, depression can be caused by more recent occurrences. A particularly stressful series of negative life events at work or home, the recent death of a loved one, new or chronic medical issues or a bad breakup can affect your mental health and increase your risk of depression.
Seasonal changes can affect depression too. If you’ve ever heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you know winter weather can sometimes lead to depression.
Depression can also result from caring for someone who’s ill, infirm or otherwise unable to fend for themselves (this is known as caregiver depression).
As you can see, non-depressed and depressed people can actually have an impact on your depression risk. So technically, you could develop the condition as a result of another person’s actions, condition or needs.
This is where things get a bit complicated. While depression isn’t contagious per se, other people can indeed “give” you depression — at least, from a certain point of view.
A better way to put it would be to say other people can increase your risk of depression. For instance, your family’s genetic history may elevate your chances, along with social interactions, traumatic events and abusive relationships.
Stress at work can do it over time, as can anxiety disorders and other mental disorders. Caring for someone else can even mow down your mental health.
This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as emotional contagion — the idea that people tend to experience the same negative emotions when interacting. It’s well documented in medical literature.
Take a 1994 study, for example, which looked at nearly 100 pairs of college roommates. They found from three weeks of research that a depressed roommate increased the depression risk and frequency of the person they lived with.
Weirdly enough, this contagious depression was found to be worse in roommates who sought reassurance from their cohabitant. And the more supportive and reassuring a roommate was, the more affected they generally became.
A study of adolescents from 2011 went so far as to suggest that friendships are created and destroyed based on each person’s level of depression. When analyzing more than 900 students, it found that the depression symptoms of the depressed target students converged toward an “average level” over time, meaning the less depressed kids became more depressed, and vice versa.
Still, the report specified that the convergence didn’t appear to be due to contagion effects of depression on students. Because technically, this would suggest that the most depressed parties should get even more depressed, which didn’t happen.
A 2014 study of social interactions on social networks also found that in-person communication and the associated nonverbal cues weren’t necessary for so-called “emotional contagion” after examining the effects of newsfeeds.
This is in addition to the countless previous studies showing that sexual abuse, assault, neglect and other interpersonal traumas from social relationships, as well as random encounters, can put you into a depressive state.
So, no, you’re not safe from other people’s depression just because it’s not contagious — nor are you safe from their behaviors, actions and influence.
You can’t control what others do, but you can control how you address problems when they arise.
If you’re wondering how to prevent getting depression from other people, we don’t have much to offer. Prevent is a strong word, and if we’re being clear, you can’t actually prevent depression.
Other people’s actions can affect us deeply. And when you’re supportive of those who are struggling, you might begin to feel the effects of their struggle yourself.
Though preventing depression might not be entirely possible, you can reduce your risk by changing your habits and lifestyle, along with preventative maintenance of your mental health.
A healthy diet, adequate sleep, exercise and social interactions are crucial to maintaining your mental health. If you’ve been negligent in these areas, taking time to address problems might help correct the ship on depression.
Therapy and medication can help too. These days, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most effective ways of dealing with the symptoms of depression.
With CBT, you learn to manage depressive moods and negative thought patterns and slowly build a habit of rejecting those feelings rather than letting them consume you.
Medication, meanwhile, comes in several forms under the blanket term of antidepressants. While there are many classes of antidepressant medication, the ones most commonly recommended today are a class called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. SSRIs can help your brain better balance its levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate your mood.
These are just a few examples of the various treatments for depression. Getting access to a full list requires more work on your part, in the form of a conversation.
Emotional expressions don’t really work the same way as transmissible diseases. Depression isn’t something you can get from coughing, kissing or any other bodily interaction, but some sound scientific studies show that other people can indeed affect your mental health.
What can you do to prevent this?
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to prevent depression, as mentioned earlier. But there are steps you can take to lower your risk and mitigate its effects.
One of the best things to do is talk to a mental health professional who can employ mental health services for their effects on depression.
Depression isn’t something you can manage alone, and whether you’re certain of the best treatment options for your unique needs, a healthcare provider is a crucial partner in making sure you see results.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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