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You can catch your friend’s mood, but not depression

New research suggests we can “pick up” good and bad moods from friends, but not depression.

The findings, published the journal Royal Society Open Science, imply that mood does spread over friendship networks, as do various different symptoms of depression such as helplessness and loss of interest. However the effect from lower or worse mood friends was not strong enough to push the other friends into depression.

The researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which incorporates the moods and friendship networks of US adolescents in schools.

Using mathematical modeling, they found that having more friends who suffer worse moods is associated with a higher probability of an individual experiencing low moods and a decreased probability of improving. They found the opposite applied to adolescents who had a more positive social circle.

“We investigated whether there is evidence for the individual components of mood (such as appetite, tiredness, and sleep) spreading through US adolescent friendship networks while adjusting for confounding by modeling the transition probabilities of changing mood state over time,” says public health statistics researcher Rob Eyre of the University of Warwick, who led the study.

“Evidence suggests mood may spread from person to person via a process known as social contagion.

“Previous studies have found social support and befriending to be beneficial to mood disorders in adolescents while recent experiments suggest that an individual’s emotional state can be affected by exposure to the emotional expressions of social contacts.

“Clearly, a greater understanding of how changes in the mood of adolescents are affected by the mood of their friends would be beneficial in informing interventions tackling adolescent depression.”

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The World Health Organization has estimated that depression affects 350 million people across the world. This study’s findings emphasize the need to also consider those who exhibit levels of depressive symptoms just below those needed for a diagnosis of actual depression when designing public health interventions.

The study also helps confirm that there is more to depression than simply low mood. At the individual level, these findings imply that following the evidence-based advice for improving mood, e.g. exercise, sleeping well, and managing stress, can help a teenager’s friends as well as themselves. Whereas for depression, friends do not put an individual at risk of illness, so a recommended course of action would be to show them support.

“The results found here can inform public health policy and the design of interventions against depression in adolescents,” says coauthor Frances Griffiths of Warwick Medical School. “Sub-threshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern as they have been found to be very common, to cause a reduced quality of life, and to lead to greater risk of depression later on in life than having no symptoms at all.

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“Understanding that these components of mood can spread socially suggests that while the primary target of social interventions should be to increase friendships because of its benefits in reducing of the risk of depression, a secondary aim could be to reduce spreading of negative mood.”

Source: University of Warwick

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