Depression May Be Contagious, Experts Say

Ron and Carol Rossetti had a storybook romance. The two were high school sweethearts, went to prom together and married after college.

"He was like the fun in my life," Carol Rossetti recalled. "But had I known the ride I was going to be in for, I'm not sure I would have signed up for it."

Not too long after they were married, Ron would get into terrible tempers, Carol recalled, or become very depressed. Later on, as his business grew more successful, Ron would spend money lavishly on cars: A Lotus, a Viper, a Porsche, a Hummer.

Ron Rossetti's erratic behavior took a toll on his wife. "I was just really unhappy," Carol said. "I was wanting to find the answer without giving up the marriage."

Carol Rossetti's discontent may be no surprise to many people whose spouses suffer from mood disorders. Ron was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his late 30s, and while the news explained some of his behaviors and brought Carol a measure of relief, his wife Carol was in an unusual and vulnerable position.

Spouses are at high risk for depression when one party has a clinical disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, because they spend a large amount of time with them and are emotionally invested in their well-being.

"Was she depressed? Absolutely," Ron said. "Look what she had for a husband. … Was it a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?"

Some studies show that if one spouse is depressed, the other can become depressed, and that up to 40 percent of people whose spouses have bipolar disorder get clinical depression. That's according to Dr. Igor Galynker, director of the Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Natural Born Mimics

"We can mimic other people's facial expressions," Galynker said. "When we mimic other people's facial expressions, we also can adopt the mood that these people are in. It affects us, even on a superficial level."

But such mimicry can go beyond the superficial and become emotional. Studies in which monitors track brain activity while a subject is shown smiling or frowning faces show that the areas associated with happy or sad emotions are active when the subject is presented with the corresponding face.

This ability to tune in to other people's feelings, or empathize, can be useful, but it can also get a person in trouble if they are around someone who has depression.

"If a genetic predisposition exists, and a person is surrounded by people with a behavior, that may give rise to or create an environment that would fertilize that behavior," said Steven Lappen, a writer and frequent public speaker who has bipolar disorder.

Lappen, 58, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19 and said his manic and depressive episodes during his 20-year marriage made his wife feel invisible and caused her to withdraw from him, behaving as if she, too, was depressed.

"I was so blocked up, I couldn't respond to her overtures," Lappen said. "Outside of the marriage, she wasn't depressed. She was able to tap into her vitality and vibrancy."

Lappen and his wife eventually divorced, and he later remarried a woman who also has bipolar disorder.

"The good news is that we both have bipolar disorder; the bad news is that we both have bipolar disorder," Lappen said, adding that their implicit understanding of the clinical nature of each other's moods made for a smoother relationship.

Clinical Condition?

But experts are quick to point out that clinical mood disorders are not contagious per se.

Depression and bipolar disorder are complex, rooted in genetics and subtle brain chemistry. Experts point out that these disorders cannot infect people nearby the way a virus could.

"A depressed person will not give you the same clinical disorder by contagion. They're just too complex for that," said Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology and director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory at Stanford University. "It is rare that you yourself will develop that same psychiatric disorder."

But a person with depression or other disorder can have a tremendous effect on those around them. Studies on college roommates show that when one person has depression, the other roommate can develop similar behaviors and feel more down.

"It's not the mimicry, it's the stress of being around them," Gotlib said. "The mood stuff happens, but it's not clinical."

Coping strategies are critical when dealing with a depressed spouse.

"If the caregiver believes the behavior is caused by the illness, they are less likely to be affected," Galynker said. "If they think the behavior is the result of a character flaw, they are more likely to be affected because then they also place blame on themselves."

Carol Rossetti never thought she had a clinical condition, but she eventually became so unhappy with her husband that they separated.

"When I left him after 34 years of marriage, I didn't think we'd get back together," Carol said. "I was perfectly fine not being with him."

But Ron quit his job and went through therapy to get his disorder under control, and after a year of separation, the Rossettis came together again. Now both Ron and Carol know how to maneuver around Ron's episodes.

"The last ½ to two years have been the most worry-free of my life," Carol said. "Now he's a born-again bipolar person."