Vulnerability to Depression: Can It Be Contagious?
April 30, 2013
Researchers have found that college roommates of students who demonstrate vulnerability to depression are more likely to develop that vulnerability themselves over time. The research, conducted by psychologists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, was published in the April issue of Clinical Psychological Science.

Haeffel and Hames examined “cognitive vulnerability,” which they call “a potent risk factor for depression.” Those with cognitive vulnerability tend to interpret stressful life events as the result of factors over which they have no control; they see these events as a reflection of their own deficiencies. Cognitive vulnerability is normally quite stable in adulthood; however, the researchers wanted to examine whether it might be “contagious” during periods of major life transitions—like starting college.

The research involved 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs who had started college as freshmen. When they arrived on campus, the participants completed an online questionnaire that included measures of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms; they completed the same survey twice more, at 3-month and 6-month intervals, when they also answered questions about stressful life events.

The results showed that freshmen who were assigned to roommates with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommates’ vulnerability to depression. Perhaps even more significant, when the vulnerable mindset “rubbed off” on these students, it affected their rates of future depressive symptoms. Students whose cognitive vulnerability increased over the first 3 months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at 6 months than those whose vulnerability didn’t change.

On a more positive note, the study also found that a healthy mindset was also contagious. “Those assigned to a roommate with a more positive thinking style developed a more positive style themselves whereas those assigned to a roommate with a negative style became more negative,” Haeffel said in a recent interview with Time.com. The research does not suggest factors that make one roommate’s style more likely to influence the other.

“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,” the authors say in press release from the Association for Psychological Science, the publisher of the journal in which the study appears. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”