Article — Secondhand Blues (from Psychology Today)

Argh!!! Only a synopsis is online (unless you subscribe). *sigh* The article discusses how depression is contagious. Simply put, depressed people are often self-centered, tend to overreact, and are overly anxious and pessimistic. Being around that will in turn drain you of energy and make you depressed. Supportive social contacts are the most effective way to counter that.

Secondhand Blues” by Michael Yapko and Hara Estroff Marano, from the September 2009 issue of Psychology Today.

I’m not going to quote from the article, but I will summarize a lot of the general ideas.

Depression is socially contagious, both from friends and family. Especially from family.

People who are depressed tend to make others around them depressed. This happens a couple of ways. First off, depressed people are very anxious and pessimistic. So whenever a new idea is suggested, the depressed person will often react by list all the things they think will likely go wrong. If a problem is encountered, it is immediately deemed insurmountable, or conquerable only with a vast amount of effort. Secondly, depression, social isolation, and overreaction make a self-destructive spiral for the depressed person. They are depressed, so they start thinking their friends don’t want to hear from them, people don’t like them, there’s no point in asking for help, etc. As the person withdraws from social life, they lose perspective and their world shrinks down. When a new problem or idea is suggested, the reaction is overly emotional and overly negative because the depressed person has been thinking about how hard their life is and how they can’t cope. This in turn intensifies the depression and they withdraw further from their friends and family, ad infinitum.

So, if you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed, it is extremely draining for you even if you are not depressed yourself. It will be an uphill battle getting the depressed person to consider possible solutions or alternative actions — they’ll argue there’s no point, nothing will work.

The depressed person will tend to emotionally overreact to new problems or any perceived criticism, which is wearing for people trying to talk to them. And yes, pointing out how life is not that bad and could be much worse and their reactions are a bit out of proportion will often be perceived as criticism. So the person trying to draw the depressed person out of their depression will get tired of dealing with the overblown emotions and stop trying. Which leads to further isolation, further narrowing of the worldview, further overreaction, further depression, etc.

In such cases, it’s understandable why even someone who wasn’t depressed would start to agree there was no point in trying, things are awful and all problems are insurmountable.

When it’s a child dealing with a depressed parent, the transmission of depression is very easy. The article spent quite a lot of time discussing this, and with good reason. Children are full of questions — a “why?” from a child is not just asking why something is happening, but how should the child deal with it right now with their actions, how should they feel about it emotionally, should they expect similar events in the future, and how does the event in question fit into the overall grand scheme of things. If a depressed parent responds by telling the child not to ask why, or that’s just the way things are and there’s nothing to be done about the world being a horrible place, the child eventually learns to stop asking “why?”. If every new idea and new endeavor of the child’s is met with criticisms and a litany of all the reasons it won’t work or will be a waste of time or might get the child hurt, the child eventually stops taking chances and becomes isolated.

Which, you might notice, describes a lot of very overprotective parents who fly into a tizzy whenever their child wants to walk across the street, ride their bike, go play with friends, or do any of the thousand things most kids do (and most survive unhurt).

The most effective counter for both depressed people and someone dealing with a depressed person is a network of good social contacts. People who are upbeat, outgoing, and put things in perspective so even though there are problems, let’s figure out a way to deal with the problems and move on. But this is counter to prevailing trends of people spending more and more time sedentary and alone in front of the computer or the television.

And, while the article did not say this, this is my own experience talking — keeping good social contacts takes a lot more work than most people are willing to do. Talking through differences, being willing to compromise. Not reacting to every little annoyance. Biting down on the first cries of offense and instead working through the emotions before deciding if the issue is important enough to bring up. Manners. Knowing how to carry on a conversation. Reciprocity. Making the effort to stay in touch and understanding it takes to two to keep in touch, not just one person deciding if and when they’ll respond to the others repeated overtures. Risking rejection. Trust and the attendant emotional vulnerability. All of these take work. They take forethought. And since everyone screws up on these from time to time, they also require humility, the willingness to sincerely apologize, and the grace to politely accept an apology while still allowing the other person to maintain their own dignity.  And I personally see a lot of people who would rather be isolated and depressed that expend the personal effort and self-discipline it takes to build and maintain a solid friendship or family relationship.

What does not fix depression, and both the article and I agree on this, is medication. It will numb depression, or hide it for a while. But unless the person also works on learning coping strategies and social skills, the depression will come back if the medication is stopped or if the person develops a tolerance for the medication — and it will be just as destructive to the person and contagious to others as it was before.

But medication is by far the most often recommended treatment for depression, and behavioral therapy is mentioned hardly at all.

The article presented some scary statistics about how depression has been increasing in the population during the last couple generations, and not just because it’s being diagnosed more but because it’s a social disease.

Finally, the article mentioned that while depression typically shows up in the 20s and 30s, it is usually preceded by anxiety problems when the person is still a child. If you are dealing with a child who seems to be overly anxious, it will do them a world of good to help them develop coping strategies now. Help them put things in perspective and think of solutions they can carry out themselves. Even if they have problems with anxiety their whole life, the coping strategies will help them deal with the anxiety and stop it from turning into depression.

I really wish the entire article was online (for people other than subscribers, I mean). If your local library carries a copy of Psychology Today and you have or have had problems with depression or are dealing with someone who is currently depressed, I would really recommend the article. I need to doublecheck, but I think one of the article authors has written a book about the same topic. If so, I will probably read the book sometime in the future.

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