Can You ‘Catch’ Depression Like the Flu?
By being around a depressed person, can you also get depressed?
By being around a depressed person, can you also get depressed?(Photo: iStockphoto)

Can You ‘Catch’ Depression Like the Flu?

It’s not unusual to feel negative after being in close proximity to someone who has expressed anger, resentment, displeasure and so forth, even if it’s not directed towards you. However, could it mean that these emotions can be contagious? A simple answer does not exist.

According to this report, about half the people you know would experience loneliness at some point in their life. Additionally, in March 2018, the World Health Organization concluded that there are 300 million people, across different age groups, that struggle with depression. This also means that at some point in your life, you are highly likely to be in contact with someone dealing with loneliness, depression or other linked disorders.

The Psychology Today report further points out that depression, known as the “common cold” of mental illnesses, is more likely to occur in people with a negative outlook towards life. To ascertain the link between a person’s mental health and a cynical, pessimistic approach to life of those around them, a study was conducted among college students which showed that after three months of contact with a roommate, a person was more likely to develop the same negative perspective themselves. This, in turn, left them more vulnerable and exposed to depression.

However can this also mean that by being around a depressed person, you can get depressed?

Loading...

Can One Really ‘Catch’ Depression?

‘It is a myth that you can catch depression, anxiety or other mental illness if you live with a patient.’
‘It is a myth that you can catch depression, anxiety or other mental illness if you live with a patient.’
(Photo: iStock) 

Dr Samir Parikh, Director and Head of Department, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, begins by disagreeing with the above proposition in no equivocal terms.

It is a myth that you can catch depression, anxiety or other mental illness if you live with a patient. The fact is that mental illness is not contagious. They are caused by internal chemical changes which are not in one’s control.
Dr Samir Parikh

Dr Soumiya Mudgal, Consultant Psychiatrist, Max Multi Speciality Centre, Panchsheel Park, agrees with Dr Parikh when she says:

No, depression is not a contagious disorder. It doesn’t spread from one person to another. Depression occurs due to decreased serotonin levels in the brain (among other things).
Dr Samir Parikh

Mental Illness and List of Myths

Bio-psycho-social factors, biological factors and psychological factors often cause mental illness in people
Bio-psycho-social factors, biological factors and psychological factors often cause mental illness in people
(Photo: iStockphoto)

When it comes to mental health, myths are galore.

Another myth is that taking care of a patient with mental illness would give the caretaker mental illness. The fact of the matter is that caregivers may experience stress and the burden of care, but it does not result in mental illness.
Dr Samir Parikh

The causes of mental illnesses are several. For ease, Dr Parikh lists them down in the following manner:

  • Bio-psycho-social factors
  • Biological factors (genetics, neurotransmitters, chemical changes)
  • Psychological factors (personality traits) and social factors (environment, social network, relationships)

Consequently, it is not possible to blame a single factor in the causation of a mental illness, the doctor points out. On the contrary, he adds, there is an interaction of multiple variables at play, which together contribute towards the development of any mental illness.

The biological component could include the role of genetic factors, neurotransmitter or other physiological causes. The psychological component of this model could include cognitive, emotional, as well as other stressor-associated factors, further coupling with psychosocial and environmental factors like the social support systems available, to together lead to mental illnesses.
Dr Samir Parikh

The Role of Genes

'Depression can be seen in members of a family because of the genetic similarities'
'Depression can be seen in members of a family because of the genetic similarities'
(Photo: iStockphoto)

The genetic factors that Dr Parikh talks about are also what Dr Mudgal refers to.

Depression can be seen in members of a family because of the genetic similarities between them which makes them vulnerable to having a possibility of having depression more than the general population.
Dr Soumiya Mudgal

However, this in no way means that the family members ‘caught’ depression from each other.

But Can We Be Affected by Others’ Emotions?

'While you may not “catch” depression, you might pick up other negative moods from people.' (Photo: iStock)
'While you may not “catch” depression, you might pick up other negative moods from people.' (Photo: iStock)

The answer to this is indeed a simple one - yes. While you may not “catch” depression, you might pick up other negative moods from people.

Yes, one can get affected by other people’s emotions. If a person associates/identifies with a particular event or situation in someone else’s life, they can feel similar emotions, but it’s usually a short-lived phenomenon. An emotion is a complex state with psychic, somatic/bodily and behavioural components. A mental illness, on the other hand, is primarily characterised by behavioural or psychological impairment of function. This impairment is a deviation from the normal and is associated with disease or distress, and not simply an expected response to a particular event.
Dr Soumiya Mudgal

Dr Mudgal reiterates that if a group of people or family is under a stressful situation for a long period of time, some of them may develop anxiety or depression, but that is not equivalent to “catching” it from one another.

There might also be a lot of people who might even develop depression and anxiety in such situations because of their internal emotional makeup or a lack of genetic predisposition or other factors.
Dr Soumiya Mudgal

The bottom line is, while a gloomy day might sometimes become gloomier if you happen to be around someone in a blue mood, it does not mean it will affect your mental health in a lasting way. Myths like a depressed or anxious person will also make you depressed or anxious is one of the many that experts are trying to bust as part of the conversation on mental health. Next time it makes you apprehensive about reaching out to a loved one who might be living with a mental disorder, this is a concern that can easily be snuffed.

(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)

(Make sure you don't miss fresh news updates from us. Click here to stay updated)

Follow our Mind It section for more stories.

    Loading...