We all know that kids can catch infectious childhood illnesses from each other but who would have thought that depression could be passed on? Many studies have already revealed that peer group pressure can influence children and that if a child is particularly disruptive he or she can influence other children, but now a recent study has found that depression and anxiety can be contagious too.
The study was run by Rebecca Schwartz-Mette at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri. A total of 274 same sex friendship pairs were involved in the study, which took place over a six month period. There were two separate age groups, younger children from Grades 3 and 5 and adolescents from grades 7 and 9. The kids completed measures of depressive and anxiety symptoms, co-rumination, and self disclosure.
The researchers found that depression was contagious amongst them all and anxiety was contagious amongst girls and older boys.
Co-rumination a major factor
Further analysis of the data identified that co-rumination had a major influence on the contagious effect. Rumination literally means to chew something over for an extended period of time so co-rumination basically means discussing negative or depressive feelings in depth with someone else. The results suggest that over time, children who are exposed to persistent rumination somehow internalize these feelings.
“These finding highlight a previously unstudied risk factor for the development of internalizing symptoms in childhood” said Schwartz-Mette.
“Most important, a mechanism that helped to account for depression and contagion was identified”.
Home environment irrelevant
What this suggests is that regardless of a child’s home environment and whether it’s a stable and happy one or not, if they are constantly analyzing and discussing negative feelings, anxieties and emotions with their friends, their mental health may suffer as a result.
It is normal for children to have fears, worries and anxieties at certain times, however, when these symptoms become so severe that it is distressing enough to affect a child’s daily life then it’s time to seek help. For example, if a child is so anxious that they are terrified to go out, fall asleep, or be on their own, or if they become excessively clingy and tearful and there is no obvious reason for this, then it may be an idea to seek professional help.
Anxiety and depression in children
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, there are around 3,000 youngsters suffering from an anxiety disorder in the UK alone. However, this isn’t the whole picture as there are many more that say nothing and basically suffer in silence.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem to affect children. There are several different types of anxiety disorders and these are:
- General Anxiety Disorder – constant worry about anything and everything – not specific to one thing
- Separation Anxiety Disorder – anxiety related to being away from home or separate from parents or loved ones
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – obsessive thoughts which may result in irrational compulsive rituals in order to deal with these thoughts, for example, obsessing about cleanliness and constantly hand washing
- Social Phobia – intense fear of social situations, speaking in front of other people, participating in group events etc.,
- Panic Disorder – recurring panic attacks
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance techniques that can develop some time after an intensely traumatic event was experienced or witnessed.
Depression can affect anyone at any age including children. It’s shocking that as recent as thirty years ago, many mental health professionals believed that children were not able to suffer from depression because it was believed they were not emotionally mature enough to feel hopeless. We now know this is simply not true.
There is no single reason as to why anxiety and depression affects one child and not another but there are some pointers. For example, youngsters who are less confident socially may worry more. Children who have experienced a traumatic event or situation may feel more anxious. If a child is having difficulty at school or is being bullied they may feel isolated and depressed.
Most children cope very well with their fears and anxieties but for some, the feelings can become disabling and if not dealt with may persist into adulthood. Also, a child who is anxious is more likely to become depressed and a child who is already suffering from depression is more likely to suffer from anxiety too.
Childhood is supposed to be a happy time but unfortunately, this is not always the case. However, help is available if a child is suffering from depression and/or anxiety and it doesn’t necessarily mean taking prescription drugs. Talking Therapies are proving to be highly effective as they help a child make positive changes to the way they think and view a situation, which in turn helps them to cope with their fears and anxieties.