Emotions are contagious. Like the common cold, stress can spread to the people around you, as can good moods and bad moods. Knowledge of this has led some people to believe that mental illness can be transmitted as well. And while the symptoms of the disease may be transferred — misery loves company, as they say — a 2014 study published in the journal Memory & Cognition concludes the illness itself is impossible to transfer.
To study the misconception, lead researchers Jessecae Marsh and Lindzi Shanks asked a group of individuals if they believed certain non-infectious diseases were indeed infectious. The group responded that alcoholism had a 56 percent chance of transmission, anorexia 35.7 percent, and depression 32.2 percent. These were the most “communicable” diseases. Whereas disorders such as Tourette’s (4.2 percent), autism (5.3 percent), and schizophrenia (7.4 percent) scored much lower on the transmission scale.
People’s willingness to interact with those afflicted with a mental disorder was related to how contagious they thought they were. A higher rate of a disorder’s possible transmission, the less likely participants were to interact with them.
But how did the participants think these disorders were being transferred? Well, through social interactions. One individual explained, “If you hang out with someone that drinks all the time, you will soon be drinking a lot as well.”
This notion is, of course, false and this kind of misconception could lead those suffering to be isolated, magnifying the severity of their disorder.
In fact, another study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society in 2015, found evidence suggesting that more frequent social interaction actually protects against depression.
Co-author Edward Hill, said: “Our results suggest that promotion of any friendship between adolescents can reduce depression since having depressed friends does not put them at risk, but having healthy friends is both protective and curative.”