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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Commitments : Depression, Like a Bad Cold, Is Contagious

June 26, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Humankind's latest fear has been of "Hot Zone" airborne pathogens--floating down ducts, blasted from vents and wafting through windows to infect us.

But you'll need more than a spacey-looking protection suit to guard against an even more insidious contagion. New research suggests that depression may be catching. Misery doesn't just love company, it creates it.

Thomas E. Joiner Jr., an associate psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, studied 96 randomly selected pairs of same-sex college roommates for signs of contagious depression. He found that 15% of the students exhibited mild signs, and another 15% showed moderate symptoms. (And all this time you thought college itself was the depressant.)

Each roommate's mental state was assessed before they moved in together, then again three weeks later. Those who experienced predictable downers, such as death of a loved one or job loss, were dropped from the study.

"Depression was contagious for all pairs [that included] a depressed roommate, but was intensely contagious for dependent personalities, or people I call high reassurance seekers," says Joiner, a clinical psychologist. These people "rely on others to bolster their self-esteem, soothe them, calm them. When that is taken away . . . they don't have anyone to regulate their emotions."

The scenario might go like this: You're home from work and feel lousy because things aren't going well. Your depressed roommate, spouse or pal is prone on the couch, glazed over from watching "Gilligan's Island" reruns and has a fluorescent orange Chee-tos mustache.

You say: "Omigod, I feel terrible about this project . . . maybe I am really just a talentless hack . . . should get out before I crash and burn in humiliation." Roommate says: "Uh huh." You slump down next to roommate, pop a Chee-to and plot a downward career move.

Although the "I'm not OK, you're not OK" dynamic is less corrosive among the self-confident, everyone is potentially vulnerable because self-esteem depends on performing well or being liked.

"People do seek out self-verification ['That's enough from me. What do you think about me?'].... It's a basic human need, even if the feedback is negative," Joiner says.

The effect appears across the life span. Children of depressed mothers are more likely to be depressed. In a 1987 study, psychologist James C. Coyne found that about 45% of people with clinically depressed spouses needed psychotherapeutic help, compared to 15% among those with non-depressed spouses.

What is the remedy? Certainly not family-size bottles of Prozac. Joiner says that those who are close to a depressed person must "inoculate themselves," without abandoning the depressed individual. Helpful strategies might include family therapy, education, and seeking out other sources of reassurance.

All this transcends "You are such a downer," or "You're bummin' me," figures of speech that may have been rooted in the truth all along.

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