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Study classifies depression risk factor as contagious

Henry Gens | Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Things that are contagious: laughter, yawning, sneezing, the common cold. And now somewhere on that list you’ll find cognitive vulnerability.
A recent study by Notre Dame psychology professor Gerald Haeffel, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found that a risk factor for depression known as ‘cognitive vulnerability’ can be passed from one individual to another.

Haeffel said cognitive vulnerability is essentially a style of thinking about events and personal reflection, not to be confused with the mood of depression itself. Cognitive vulnerability can be a powerful predictor of future depressive episodes, he said.

“To give an example, say two people both fail a test here. The college student who is at risk for depression will think, ‘This means I’m stupid, or worthless, I’m never going to get into grad school now,’ and when they’re sad, they just focus on this,” Haeffel said. “They’re stuck on ‘I feel so sad, why do I feel so miserable, what’s wrong with me?’ That’s the person who’s at risk for depression.” Haeffel said.  

“Whereas another student who gets the same failing grade might think ‘I didn’t work hard enough, I’ll work harder on the next one. I’ll catch up, I’ll be fine, I’ll still get into grad school,'” he said.  “And when they feel sad, they go and play basketball or go play a sport or do whatever. That person’s not at risk for depression.”
Haeffel said conventional wisdom in the psychology field has held that cognitive vulnerability in individuals remains relatively stable throughout life, past adolescence.

“We thought that there were going to be times when it might change. These would be times during major life transitions, times when you go into a new social environment where you’re surrounded by new people who have all new ways of thinking,” Haeffel said. “We thought that [in these times] it might rub off and actually be contagious.”

To investigate this hypothesis, Haeffel said he and Jennifer Hames, a 2009 graduate of Notre Dame, conducted a study on 103 pairs of randomly assigned freshman roommates at the University. Haeffel surveyed the students on the two aspects of cognitive vulnerability – event interpretation and self-reflection – when the freshmen first arrived, three months later, and at the end of the academic year, six months later.

Haeffel found that those who had a roommate with a negative way of thinking about the world caught some of that style and became more negative in their own thinking. At the final survey, those who had their cognitive vulnerability adversely influenced were at a significantly greater risk for depression.

“This is the first study to show that these can change more easily than you thought,” Haeffel said. “In three months, we saw changes in vulnerability that then actually meant something for future depressive symptoms.”

Haeffel emphasized that these findings on the relative malleability of cognitive vulnerability have implications in treatment of depression. He said those suffering from the disorder could benefit greatly from a treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on how individuals think about events and themselves.

“If people are struggling with depression, we always hear on the news that the best treatments are medication,” Haeffel said. “But this therapy is as effective as medication and it’s time-limited so you don’t have to take it your whole life. It also has a relapse-prevention effect, unlike medication.

“You learn the skills and it keeps you safe from depression in the future, which tends to be highly recurrent.”

Contact Henry Gens at hgens@nd.edu