Could Depression Be Contagious?

Research shows that your friends’ vulnerability to depression can “rub off” on you. Here’s how to protect yourself.

Could Depression Be Contagious?

Imagine the following scene. An 18-year-old college freshman, Rose, calls her parents at the end of her first semester away at school:

Mom: “Honey, how are you? How are classes going?”

Rose: “Ahh... Well, I caught something from Jen, my roommate.”

Dad: “Like a cold, honey? What did you catch?”

Rose: “Not a cold, dad, something worse.”

Mom: “Something worse?! What, honey, what happened to you?”

Rose: “I caught a cognitive vulnerability to depression.”

Dad and Mom in unison: “A what?!”

Dad: “Depression isn’t something you catch, honey. I’m so glad you don’t have the flu.”

Rose: “No dad, it’s for real. I can tell. I caught her cognitive vulnerability. I know it, and now I’ll never finish the semester…”

Sounds wild, right? Well, new research from the University of Notre Dame found that a so-called cognitive vulnerability to depression is, indeed, contagious among college roommates. Rose’s roommate’s vulnerability to depression has “rubbed off” on her, and now she’s becoming stuck in the thick of depressive fog—persistent sadness, loss of pleasure, low energy, trouble sleeping, etc.

MORE: How to Get out of a Toxic Relationship

What is a cognitive vulnerability (CV) to depression? CVs are thought of as psychological risk factors that predispose people to become depressed, especially when we are confronted with a stressful life event (i.e., moving away to college, illness or divorce). CVs describe characteristic styles of thinking that people use to understand their experiences. One of the CVs studied in this research was psychological rumination, or the tendency to regularly reflect on how bad you feel, why you feel as you do, and, in general, to brood about bad moods. If you’re a person with the tendency to ruminate—to get up in your head, and to think over and over again about how awful you feel and why you are so down—you’re much more likely to become clinically depressed when you face difficult experiences.

In the Notre Dame study, the researchers assessed changes in a person’s rumination compared to her prior rumination scores, and as a function of her roommate’s prior rumination scores. Their results revealed that how a person thinks about the world is associated not only with what’s happening inside her own head, but also with what’s happening inside her roommate’s head.

QUIZ: How Happy Are You?

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