As someone who suffered from severe depression for many years, I know firsthand that people suffering from depression often do so alone. That’s not necessarily because there aren’t others willing to help that person with their depression. It’s because people who are depressed often push others away until there’s no one left to pick them back up. It’s not that solitude provides any real or lasting solace, but because depression makes even simple daily tasks-such as interaction with friends-look insurmountable.
Unfortunately, improving the symptoms of depression can be a long and difficult journey. There’s no quick fix. Often, one type of treatment (talking therapy or prescribed medications, for instance) isn’t enough by itself. Finding the right therapist and the right drug/combination of drugs can take years, and with the abundance of potential side effects, many people suffering depression stop treatment within weeks of beginning it. That’s if they ever even start trying.
None of this is new or good news, but there’s an interesting new study that asserts that depression isn’t contagious. Being in contact with a depressed person doesn’t mean you’re more likely to become depressed yourself. However, happiness can spread, and the researchers at the University of Warwick found that the best way for teenagers to beat depression is to have lots of friendships with healthy, happy people. For someone who’s depressed, that probably sounds nauseating. No thanks, you’ll say. I get it, but for their friends who aren’t depressed, my advice is simple: Ignore their complaints and keep being there for your friend, even if they try to push you away.
How the study worked
The researchers looked at more than 2,000 U.S. high school students. They classified each student as either having depressive symptoms (low mood) or not being depressed (healthy mood). They found that though depression doesn’t spread from one individual to another, having friends with a healthy mood reduced the probability of a person being depressed themselves. Teenagers who had five or more healthy friends had half the chance of developing depression. Also, teens who had 10 healthy friends had double the chance of recovering from depressive symptoms compared with those who had three healthy friends.
Results for teenagers often aren’t exactly the same for adults. Teens have different hormone levels and lead separate lives, but that doesn’t mean these results mean nothing for you and me. Oftentimes, we tend to be friends with people like us. So a depressed person’s friends might not exactly be a “bad influence,” but if they’re depressed too, the chances of recovery will be smaller.
Plenty of the thoughts and feelings a depressed person has may seem irrational to a nondepressed person. Sometimes, the depressed person realizes this. Sometimes, they don’t. What is common, though, is that it can be very difficult to make those thoughts or feelings go away. Dr. J. Paul Hamilton of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research thinks that these problems arise because of distortions in the natural processes of the brain.
When a depressed person is left alone and the brain’s task-oriented circuits are not engaged, self-reflection kicks in-only, for a depressed person, the process doesn’t work the way it should. Their brains cannot seem to self-regulate negative emotions and thoughts the way a healthy individual may be able to.
How to be there for a friend
I know that depression sufferers are often experts at pushing people away. They’re often some combination of mean, standoffish or difficult to get ahold of. It’s a fine line between being there and being a pain (or a stalker), but it’s a line friends have to try to toe. It’s not easy, but make an effort to call/text/email your friend even if they don’t always respond. Oftentimes, they may act disinterested in you, but that may not be the case. They could either be too sad, too tired, too embarrassed or too ashamed to respond back (these are all definitely possible, by the way). However you do it, let them know that you’re still their friend, you still love them and you’ll be there for them when you’re needed. Even saying that once could save someone’s life. Don’t underestimate the value of having a real friend to talk to when someone is at their lowest point.
When it’s not depression
Depression takes many forms. It could manifest itself as a depressive reaction-basically a temporary depression brought on by stress or major life crisis. It could be major depression, which can seriously disrupt a person’s ability to function and may increase the risk of suicide. It could be more anxiety-related, bipolar disorder (which often masks itself as depression), substance abuse or some other form of mental illness. The point is that sometimes even your general practitioner can’t tell the difference because these symptoms often coincide. So if you or a loved one is suffering from depression-related symptoms, you should definitely talk to your GP about these problems and ask them for a referral. Your mental health affects everything you do each day. It’s worth discussing with an expert. Life can get better. It wasn’t easy, but mine certainly did.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.