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Dr. Gerald Haeffel, University of Notre Dame – Is Depression Contagious?

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Gerald Haeffel of the University of Notre Dame explain why college students might be open to catching depression while away at school. 

Gerald Haeffel is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame where his lab is devoted to understanding the cognitive processes that contribute to risk and resilience for depression. He hopes his research will lead to improved treatment and prevention interventions, as well as greater insights into the mind-mood connection. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

About Dr. Haeffel

Dr. Gerald Haeffel – Is Depression Contagious?

Why is it that some people are highly susceptible to depression whereas others are highly resilient? Research suggests that your risk for depression depends on how you think about life stress. When bad things happen, people have different "styles" for thinking about it. People who tend to interpret life stress as meaning that they are a failure and who tend to brood about their sad moods are at greater risk for depression than people who don’t react to stress this way.

Prior research shows that these different styles for how we think about life stress solidify in early adolescence and are then stable throughout our lifespan. This means that how you thought about stress in high school is probably the same way that you think about stress today, and will probably be the same way you think about stress 20 years from now. However, in a recent study, we hypothesized that there could still be times in adulthood when one’s style of thinking about stress could change. We theorized that these styles could change during times of major life transitions when a person is placed in a novel social environment where he/she is surrounded by new people and new ways of thinking. An example would be moving away from home for the first time. We predicted that the styles of others in the new environment would rub off and actually be contagious.

We tested our hypothesis in 103 randomly assigned college roommate pairs. As hypothesized, we found that thinking styles were contagious. Those who were assigned to a roommate with a negative thinking style were likely to “catch” this style and become more negative in their own thinking. And, participants who became more negative in their thinking, were at significantly greater risk for depression just 6 months later.  

These results call for a change in how scientists think about cognitive risk factors for depression as well as provide clues for understanding developmental fluctuations in risk for depression.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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