Depression: The Social Contagion

Depression is not physically contagious, meaning you cannot hug someone with depression and walk away with it too. However, negative feelings, unhealthy attitudes, and destructive behaviors can transfer among individuals. When your child, partner, friend, coworker, or boss is having a bad day, do you start having a rough day too? Luckily this phenomenon can happen with positive feelings and emotions as well. Have you ever had a friend laugh so hard that you start laughing with them? Here’s how this connection works:

The Social Contagion Theory

Also called the group emotional contagion theory or the network phenomenon, the social contagion theory refers to the transfer of emotions, moods, and behaviors among people in a group. People spending time with one another automatically adopt another person’s emotional state. But it doesn’t even have to be someone close to you. Highlighted Nicholas Christakis’ three degrees of influence property, he and other researchers have studied this phenomenon and noted it extends up to three degrees of separation, so your partner’s cousin’s friend’s depression can influence how you feel.

This doesn’t apply to just depression, either. It can happen with:

  • Thinking Styles: The tendency to ruminate can be passed between college roommates, dramatically increasing their risk of depression.
  • Loneliness: According to the National Institute for Health and Care Research, depression and loneliness are positively associated; as one goes up, the other goes up, and vice versa. Feelings of loneliness can also cause future depression.
  • Suicidal Ideation: Linked to depression, having a friend commit suicide increases ideation and suicide attempts in adolescents.
  • Smoking Behavior: Whether you quit or start smoking can ripple through social ties.
  • Sleep Loss and Drug Use: These can spread to four degrees of separation.
  • Alcohol and Food Consumption: Alcohol and snacks are the most influenced by peer groups, and changes in alcohol consumption from a person within the social network influence subsequent consumption.

How is Depression Spread?

According to Elfenbein, emotions can spread in several ways:


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, understand their experience, and share their feelings. While this is a positive trait, it can lead to you experiencing depression symptoms if you are too involved and empathetic with someone with depression.


With the rise in texting, the internet, and social media, you are more likely to catch depressive feelings. For example, nonverbal communication means you can interpret information more negatively than intended when you don’t have body language or facial and vocal cues to interpret emotion.


Coupled with the constant social comparison from social media, we will often evaluate ourselves and determine our feelings of self-worth based on how our peers present themselves on social media.

What Makes me More at Risk to Catch Depression?

There are protective factors that prevent you from catching negative feelings or behaviors, and then there are risk factors. You are more susceptible to depression around you based on three factors:

  1. Your Genetics– Suppose you have a genetic predisposition or family history of depression or co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or other mood disorders. Adolescents and women are more at risk for transmitting depressive emotions and symptoms.
  2. Your Personal History– If the parent or parent figure who raised you as a child had depression or you have a history of depression or another mood disorder, you are more likely to “catch” depression from your peers. You are also more susceptible if you have or currently have a chronic health condition.
  3. Your Current Stress Level– Suppose you are experiencing a significant life transition, whether wanted or unwanted, such as a move, career change, or birth of a child. In that case, you are more likely to feel the effects of depression around you.

Additionally, you are more likely to experience symptoms the closer you are to the person. If the depressed person is a parent, child, partner, roommate, or close friend, whether you meet with them online or in person, you are more prone to being affected.

All of this shouldn’t mean that you should distance yourself when a loved one is going through depression, but you should check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. If you do start to feel the effects of your depression, support each other by finding group meetings or making appointments together to speak to a counselor or therapist. Search for clinical depression treatment near me to get a jumping-off point.

The good news is that social contagion also applies to happiness. By making an effort to surround yourself with happier friends, you are more likely to feel better. Additionally, if you and your loved one experiencing symptoms get major depression disorder treatment, you can stop the spread and help your social network feel better as a whole. If you don’t feel like medication or talk therapy is for you, check out Neurostim TMS centers for less invasive options. Regardless of your choice, getting help for your loved one and yourself is the first step to feeling happier.