New research from the universities of Manchester and Warwick has revealed that only positive mood is socially “contagious” – having depressed friends or relatives does not increase one’s risk of depression, and is likely to help those suffering from the condition recover sooner.
The study was published on August 19 in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
To assess the patterns of mood distribution within a social context, the researchers looked at over 2,000 adolescents from a number of US high schools, using a method that’s normally employed for tracking the spread of infectious disease.
As it turns out, depression is not a mental disposition that can be easily passed on to other people through social interaction. Just as importantly, the results also showed that having enough friends with healthy mood can halve the probability of developing – or double the chances of recovering from – depression within a 6-12 month period. In terms of research on depression, this is a highly significant finding.
It’s been known for a long time now that certain social dynamics, such as living alone or having experienced abuse in childhood, put one at greater risk of becoming depressed. We also know that having people to talk to is of great importance for those seeking relief from their oppressive moods. This study, however, is one of the first to look at the impact friendship exerts on developing and recovering from depression.
“This was a big effect that we have seen here. It could be that having a stronger social network is an effective way to treat depression. More work needs to be done but it may that we could significantly reduce the burden of depression through cheap, low-risk social interventions,” said Dr. Thomas House, Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at the University of Manchester and a co-author on the study.
According to him, these results indicate that promoting any type of friendship among adolescents – e.g., by encouraging them to join various youth clubs – could turn out beneficial, as having depressed friends does not seem to be a risk factor, but having healthy friends is both preventive and curative.
The researchers also made an effort to make sure the method they used was not confounded by homophily, or the tendency of people to be friends mostly with those who are like them. “For example if many adolescents drink a lot of alcohol and their friends drink a lot too it may be that alcoholic drink cause depression among the young people rather than who they are friends with,” explained another co-author Professor Edward Hill.