WELLNESS
08/22/2015 08:00 am ET

Friendships May Play A Huge Role In Depression Recovery

We get by with a little help from our friends.
Shutterstock / isarescheewin

It's not always easy to know how to help a friend who's struggling with depression.

It turns out that just being there for that person might be the best thing that you can do, according to a new British study.  

Research from the Universities of Manchester and Warwick, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy, suggests that being around people with healthy moods can play a major role in the recovery of individuals with depressive symptoms, ranging from low mood to clinical depression. Spending time with people who are depressed, however, doesn't make a healthy person any more likely to become depressed themselves. 

In other words, good moods may be contagious -- but bad ones aren't. 

"There is a lot of evidence that people influence each others’ mood," Dr. Thomas House, an applied mathematician at Manchester and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We tried to quantify that in the context of depression in adolescents."

For the study, scientists used an infectious disease model to track the spread of mood among U.S. high school students, allowing them to examine the effect of a person's friendships on their ability to recover from depression. 

The model showed that being around friends with healthy moods reduces a teen's likelihood of developing depression by 50 percent. Among teens with depression, being in the presence of positive people increased their chances of recovering from the condition by 50 percent over a period of six to 12 months. 

"Having sufficient friends with healthy mood essentially doubled depressed people’s chances of recovery," House said. 

They also found that depression does not seem to spread from person to person -- debunking the common myth that depression is "contagious."

While psychologists have long known that social connections play a role in emotional well-being, exactly how important healthy social connections are for teenagers has been less clear. Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors for developing depression, and on the other hand, social support can be key to depression prevention and recovery.  

The doubled chance of depression recovery found in the study is a significant effect, and the findings suggest that high school students may benefit greatly from social interventions for preventing depression. More than 10 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have experienced at least one major depressive episode.

"More work needs to be done but it may [be] that we could significantly reduce the burden of depression through cheap, low-risk social interventions," House said in a written statement

Potential programs to reduce the burden of depression include "opening youth clubs or education in schools to encourage healthy, safe friendships amongst adolescents," House said.  

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