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.

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