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Healthy Mood Spreads Through Social Contact

New research has revealed that having mentally healthy friends can help someone recover from depression or even remain mentally healthy in the first place.

But having depressed friends doesn't make you more likely to become depressed yourself. In other words, the results indicate that a healthy mood spreads through social networks, but depression does not.

This is important as there's stigma attached to being depressed. The results indicate that being friends with someone who is depressed doesn't put you at risk of becoming depressed yourself, and is likely to help the depressed person recover.

Academics from the Universities of Manchester and Warwick collaborated on the study, which was published Aug. 24 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

They looked at more than 2,000 adolescents in a network of US high school students to see how their mood influenced each other by modeling the spread of mood using similar methods to those used to track the spread of infectious diseases.

The team found that while depression doesn't "spread," having enough friends with healthy mood can halve the probability of developing, or double the probability of recovering from, depression over a six-to-12-month period. In the context of depression, this is a very large impact.

Dr. Thomas House, senior lecturer in applied mathematics from the University of Manchester, and one of the authors of the study, says: "We know social factors, for example living alone or having experienced abuse in childhood, influences whether someone becomes depressed. We also know that social support is important for recovery from depression: for example, having people to talk to.

"Our study is slightly different as it looks at the effect of being friends with people on whether you are likely to develop or recover from being depressed," he says.

"This was a big effect that we've seen. It could be that having a stronger social network is an effective way to treat depression. More work needs to be done but it may be that we could significantly reduce the burden of depression through inexpensive, low-risk social interventions."

These results suggest that promotion of any friendship between adolescents can reduce depression since having depressed friends doesn't put them at risk, but having healthy friends is both protective and curative.

House adds: "As a society, if we enable friendships to develop among adolescents (e.g., through youth clubs) each adolescent is more likely to have enough friends with healthy mood to have a protective effect. This would reduce the prevalence of depression."

University of Warwick social science professor Frances Griffiths and applied mathematician Edward Hill collaborated on the study. "We've ensured that the method we used wasn't confounded by homophily; that is, the tendency for people to be friends with others like themselves," Hill says. "This would have affected our research. For example, if many adolescents drink a lot of alcohol and their friends drink a lot too, it may be that alcoholic drinks cause depression among the young people rather than who they're friends with."

-- Source: University of Manchester