May Clinical Depression Be Contagious?



A man is walking a very long road from one village to another. At the outskirts of the new village he encountered a farmer laboring in his field, cutting hay. He said to the farmer, “I have walked a great distance to come to this village of yours. I have left my village looking for a new home, perhaps I will find it here. Tell me, how are the people in this village? What kind of people are they?” The man in the field thought a moment, then asked, “What were the people like in the village you came from?” The traveler replied, “They were uncaring, self-absorbed, cynical, and unfriendly. That’s why I left.” The farmer paused before replying and then said, “I think that’s how you’ll find the people here, too.” The traveler replied, “In that case, I’ll just move on and look somewhere else.” A couple of days later, the farmer was again out in his field when another man approached him and said, “My village was destroyed and the people scattered. I am looking to find myself a new home, perhaps in this village. Can you tell me, how are the people in this village? What kind of people are they?” The farmer asked, “What were the people like in your village?” The traveler replied, “They were wonderful people. Loving, close, helpful, and I will miss them terribly.” The farmer said, “I think that’s how you’ll find the people here, too.”



How many of you out there have ever wondered if depression is in fact contagious? The reactions so many of us get when we tell loved ones of our condition would lead us to believe that they fear catching depression, like one would catch a cold or chicken pox. Their denial, fear, misunderstanding, or abandonment of us is a strong testament to this contagen theory. However, science tells us that depression is a result of physical changes occurring in the brain, which leads to chemical imbalances, hence the depression.

Both fact and fiction aside, there can be no worse experience for the depressed person than to see someone they love act so negatively. This kind of reaction can make a depressed person feel even more isolated and hopeless then before. To have those people who we trust so deeply reject us; can there be no greater setback for us?

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Instead, what we need from our loved ones is their support, understanding and willingness to help see us through the depression, especially the initial period following diagnosis. To ensure our loved ones' support, we must educate ourselves as to what depression is beyond the complex feelings that we experience. By doing this, we can better convey to our loved ones what depression is, how common it is, and especially how treatable it is. Instead, if we choose to be unprepared and uneducated, the chances are far greater that those around us will react unfavorably towards us, leaving us to feel all sorts of negative things about ourselves because we could not get from them what we need most…understanding.

Some studies show that if one spouse is depressed, the other can become depressed, and that up to 40 percent of people whose spouses have bipolar disorder get clinical depression. That's according to Dr. Igor Galynker, director of the Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "We can mimic other people's facial expressions," Galynker said. "When we mimic other people's facial expressions, we also can adopt the mood that these people are in. It affects us, even on a superficial level." But such mimicry can go beyond the superficial and become emotional. Studies in which monitors track brain activity while a subject is shown smiling or frowning faces show that the areas associated with happy or sad emotions are active when the subject is presented with the corresponding face.  This ability to tune in to other people's feelings, or empathize, can be useful, but it can also get a person in trouble if they are around someone who has depression.

"If a genetic predisposition exists, and a person is surrounded by people with a behavior, that may give rise to or create an environment that would fertilize that behavior," said Steven Lappen, a writer and frequent public speaker who has bipolar disorder. Also, it is important to note that depression has a hereditary factor associated with it. In such a situation, it is possible that one or both parents may have depression. That fact is possibly increasing the chances that their offspring will develop this condition. If the parental depression is present but has never been diagnosed, their negative reaction toward their child could be even greater.

In addition, the fear of receiving a negative reaction can compel some of us not to seek help. The idea of family or friends becoming aware of our condition can have a debilitating affect on us. This fear can prevent us from seeking the necessary confirmation of the condition and seeking professional help. This avoidance of diagnosis and treatment is far more serious than any negative reaction that may come from our loved ones.

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To deal with all situations, we must remind ourselves that our physical and emotional well being is paramount. We must convince ourselves that seeking professional help is more important than what others think. That treatment for depression can allow us an opportunity to regain a positive outlook on life. To deny us of this opportunity is to deny ourselves the freedom and dignity that each and every one of us prizes above all else. To lock ourselves within a world of internal depression by hiding behind doors, never going out, and never speaking to others is the greatest harm we can do to ourselves.

The choice is ours and ours alone to make. We can worry about what others think or how they will act or we can concern ourselves with our needs and seek out the professional help that we so desperately need. It is up to us to do the right thing before it's too late. By seeking professional guidance and educating ourselves about depression, we can show those we love that depression is NOT contagious.

One of the well-researched forms of psychotherapy called interpersonal therapy (IPT) emphasizes the importance of having positive and healthy relationships and provides skill-building strategies for developing them. There is good evidence that when people improve their relationship skills, their depression improves. When people feel better about themselves, they get better feedback from the world around them. They feel empowered instead of victimized, and they finally feel like they are a part of something more compelling than themselves and their depression.

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There are times when people need an intervention in their lives to move in a healthy direction. You may have tried many times to cheer someone up, but to no avail. Your guilt will not help your loved one. It actually can hurt because it can prevent both of you from seeing what is really wrong. Once someone knows they are depressed, they can do something about it.

Here’s what you can do:   
  1. Provide empathy. People who are depressed often feel they are crazy and life’s situations are hopeless. Share your own experiences with depression. Everyone who breathes has suffered through some depression at various times in their lives.
  2. Provide encouragement. As hopeless as it seems in the moment, depression can go away in a short period of time given the right recovery tools. It may take longer to get to the deeper sources of depression, but along the way a helpful therapist can give you tools to enable you to pull yourself up from despair much quicker – and believe that it can happen. For instance, people who suffer from depression and have experienced some type of weight problems will benefit from going beyond treating the surface depression and looking toward what is underneath. Often past loss, trauma, extremely high expectations and other issues extend much deeper.
  3. Show you continue to care. Send notes, cards or e-mail. Invite your loved one to activities. Keep your expectations low.
  4. Do not assume responsibility for their depression. While you definitely want to show you care, you cannot change another person. That person has to do that. You can throw life lines. You can’t make them accept. That means if another person is raging out at you, don’t accept it. Their depression does not give them an excuse to hurt you. State that in clear terms. Otherwise, you accept responsibility and the depressed person becomes even less empowered. Be careful that you do not become isolated because that person doesn't want to do anything. Make sure you get out and circulate with a support system of your own because you may have temporarily lost support from a person very important to you.
  5. Accept that you cannot do it alone. Many times it will take a professional’s assistance. See a licensed mental health counselor. This not only gives you a second opinion, it also spreads some of the assessment and caring around. The counselor has been trained to move people out of depression. You may have been trained to be a caretaker. Those things do not always mesh. Sometimes it takes letting go and moving out of someone’s way to support a loved one. The therapist may even want your loved one to consult with a psychiatrist. Sometimes medications are needed for a short-time or long term, due to changes in the body's chemistry. If their body chemistry is at odds with a person, they may need the boost medication can give before therapy is effective – no matter what their best intentions are. It is important your professional contacts spend time and listen to you. If a medicine isn’t working, tell them. As a concerned relative or friend, ask that your friend sign a release of information which allows the mental health professional to talk with you if you call. Even if you do not have that, you can call or write a message stating your concerns and specific symptoms you see. People often will not fully disclose or even be aware of their behaviors. An upset voice to one person may be a complete rageaholic to those around him. Family members may disclose their worry about someone staying in bed all the time. That same person may simply tell the doctor they sleep ok. Family members can provide vital information and often are important in therapy sessions, too.
  6. It may take an intervention for a change to occur. These provide a loving, yet firm reminder that your loved one’s depression affects you and your relationship. In interventions, you ask them to listen, then talk about specific incidents and how it affected you. Share that you love and care about them, but that you will not be a part of their depression. You want them to seek professional help. Offer to go with the person the first time. It may ease their anxiety. However, make it clear you will not sit through the entire first session with a therapist, and thereafter will participate as invited by the patient-therapist team.
  7. Recognize that healing may include changes you are not too comfortable with. For instance, a very compliant person who hid all her feelings may become more assertive. That can be an adjustment for family or friends.
  8. Do not become totally absorbed. It is crucial you take care of yourself, get out with friends. Otherwise, you may also become severely depressed. If you are worried about leaving a loved one alone, definitely seek professional help. You need a trained outsider to help you through these times and ease your fears.
  9. If someone you love or care about expresses thoughts of suicide or violence to others, seek help immediately.

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