A new study published this week in the Proceedings B scientific journal found that by surrounding themselves with friends who are typically in a good mood, teenagers who are suffering from depression can not only increase their chance of bouncing back from the condition but also lower their risk of developing it in the first place.
The study analysed data from the ongoing U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, using stats from over 2,000 high school students to look at how the moods of other teens could impact those suffering from depression and vice-versa. It investigated the spread of the students’ moods over the span of six to 12 months – similar to how the spread of an infectious disease is analysed.
“We classified people as ill (depressed) or not and looked at how that changed over time,” notes Thomas Moore, a University of Manchester applied mathematics professor who worked on the study. The idea surrounding depressed people used to be that they are prone to encompass themselves with others of the same mindset, leading many to believe that the illness could be spread. However, the results from this study suggests the opposite: that depression isn’t actually infectious but happiness is, providing a new perspective on ways to aid people struggling with the illness.
An estimated 2.6 million adolescents ranging from 12 to 17 years old had at least one major depressive episode during 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States, illustrating that at least 10.7% of that age group is dealing with depression in some form.
“Depression is a major public health concern worldwide,” says head of social science and systems in health at Warwick Medical School, Frances Griffiths, who also worked on the research. “Our results offer implications for improving adolescent mood … that encouraging friendship networks between adolescents could reduce both the incidence and prevalence of depression among teenagers.”
The study revealed that teens with a positive group of friends who weren’t suffering from the illness had half the probability of developing depression as well as double the probability of recovering from it. “Depression itself doesn’t spread, but a healthy mood actually does.” added Griffiths.
“The effect was big, much bigger than you see from antidepressants,” expressed Moore. “They don’t seem to drag their friends down.”
Moore also notes that while the study depicted the change happening over six to 12 months, the effects could take place even sooner, stating “We only got these two snapshots [of time].” He also pointed out the low-cost and low-risk factors of this form of treatment compared to other methods of alleviating the illness. “If you combine this with other things known to work, they might work even better.”
Typical modern treatment for depression is quite complex, utilizing combinations of therapy and prescription drugs while also encouraging to live a ‘healthy lifestyle’.
“When we think of staying healthy, we often think of taking exercise and eating a healthy diet. However, we should also make time for our friendships as part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Jim Bolton from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK. “This study is additional evidence of the importance of friends and family in maintaining good mental health … [and] importantly, this study indicates that when we do speak to family and friends our depression is not ‘infectious.”
Although Shirley Reynolds, professor of evidence-based psychological therapies at the University of Reading, cautions that these findings don’t necessarily apply to all teenagers.
“These data are certainly intriguing and if replicated and substantiated have important implications for public health and social [or] educational interventions,” she says. “However, there is no information given about the young people who took part … this makes it impossible to know if they are representative of other teenagers in the USA, let alone teenagers in the UK or Europe.”
Justin T. Baker, psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School agrees, saying that it is an interesting study but explains that one of its significant limitations is that it sticks to a ‘transmission model’ that only looks at two point in time, six and 12 months.
“Also, the authors chose to label participants as either depressed or not, even though mood and depression vary continuously along a continuum,” he says. “This all-or-none label makes some sense for infection, but doesn’t capture the experience of depression.”
So overall it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, it does bring up a good point that is not usually very emphasized to people fighting against depression. In fact many people who suffer from the illness are prone to isolate themselves, either because they think they are bringing their friends down or because they simply don’t have the energy to go out with them. Drugs and therapy can certainly help, but perhaps this study will help accentuate the positive-relationship component of recovering from depression, as well as advocate people spending more time with their friends in a culture that is arguably becoming more disconnected each day.