October 10 is World Mental Health Day, marking an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts to support our communities. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please consider these resources for support.
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If you talk to a friend who is angry about a situation, by the end of the conversation, chances are you’ll feel fired up, too. If your spouse is moping around the house and resisting all of your ideas for a fun day out, you’re likely to start feeling down as well.
It’s well established in scientific studies that people transfer positive and negative emotions to others through what’s known as emotional contagion; a phenomenon in which we mirror or mimic emotions to help us interact, empathize and synchronize with one another. But if this is true that emotions, like happiness or anger, are contagious, does this mean depression can be contagious, too?
“There’s a difference between major depressive disorder and some of the symptoms associated with depression, like sadness or irritability,” explains Dr. David Gratzer, an attending psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, during an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Canada. “If your loved one has depression, you may feel stressed out and be sad as a result, but depression is more than feeling sad. Depression is a mood disorder with symptoms that really stay with you and affect functionality.”
According to Gratzer, it’s unclear why some people develop depression while others don’t. Genetics can certainly play a factor and increase someone’s likelihood of experiencing depression, but it’s not necessarily the cause.
“If someone’s father, uncle and grandfather all had depression, we wouldn’t be surprised if he struggled with depression too. If you look at some families, it would almost seem like depression is contagious, but it’s not contagious like the common cold or COVID-19. But it has a genetic tie,” says Gratzer.
A 2017 study found that while mood does spread through social networks, people do not pass on depression. Researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which includes demographic, social, familial, socioeconomic, behavioural, psychosocial, cognitive and health survey data from more than 20,000 adolescents and their parents. The study found that having more friends with worse mood is associated with a higher probability of an adolescent worsening in mood and a lower probability of improving, and vice versa for friends with better mood. However, this doesn’t lead to an increase in depression.
“You take on some of that pain, especially when it’s someone you love so much,” says Miguel Mansilla, whose wife, April, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009. “But not so much that you become depressed. I will get sad or upset, but I don’t get to the point of not getting out of bed. For my wife, it was not wanting to get out of bed or eat or talk to anyone. You can’t even understand that if you are not in the same boat. We have stressful moments and days but nothing compared to what someone with mental illness goes through.”
People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion and changes in sleep patterns and activity levels. Moods range from periods of extremely elated and energized behaviour (known as manic episodes) to very sad or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes).
April has been hospitalized several times for bipolar disorder, including a five month stay in 2015. She is now on medication that is working well and feeling “good” — but Mansilla knows the toll being a caregiver can take.
“I was taking care of the kids and working shifts and I was always questioning myself. I was worried for our kids, for April and myself,” says the Hamilton, Ont. resident. “I had just visited April in the hospital and I was driving and not paying attention and crashed into the vehicle in front of me. Luckily, everyone was OK, but I realized I had to slow things down and give myself a break. I had to give up the desire to fix everything and trust the professionals and focus on the kids and keeping April comfortable.”
While depression may not be contagious, it can be difficult to support a friend or family member while safeguarding your own mental health. Gratzer recommends learning about the illness and also taking care of yourself by getting regular exercise and sleep and avoiding excessive alcohol or cannabis. If you suspect a friend or family member is struggling with depression, Gratzer says to simply start a conversation.
“You wouldn’t hesitate if you worried that your best friend had diabetes or if you thought your cousin might have arthritis,” he says.
Communicate to your loved ones that he or she is loved and that they are deserving of getting the help they need. Although it’s difficult, another thing to remember is not to take what your friend or loved one does or says personally.
“Try to understand it’s an illness. Don’t have unrealistic goals for you or the person and lean on a support unit through family and friends and the medical team,” Mansilla recommends, adding that enjoying a hobby or spending time doing things you love can also help. “It’s also about enjoying the little wins. If you are having a good evening, enjoy those moments. Don’t think about what might happen next week. Just try to get through that hour or that day.”
If you or someone you know is suffering, please contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.
For a full list of resources including mental health services in your area, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.