A Happy Friend Group May Help Teens Avoid Depression

They say a smile is contagious, but it turns out there may be more to the phrase than you might think. According to a new study published this week, teenagers who surround themselves with friends who are in a positive mood potentially reduce their own risk of developing depression and may even improve their ability to recover from the condition.

For the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from the Universities of Manchester and Warwick analyzed data from over 2,000 American high school students to deduce whether the moods of students influence one another and if this could potentially impact levels of depression among teens.

Using this data, the teams modeled the spread of moods among students of six months to a year, using techniques similar to those used to model the spread of infectious disease.

“We classified people as ill (depressed) or not and looked at how that changed over time,” says Thomas Moore, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Manchester, who worked on the study.

Moore said the new study was influenced by past research which indicated depressed people tend to group into clusters, suggesting it could potentially be spread, however, the team actually found the opposite to be true.

“Depression itself doesn’t spread, but a healthy mood actually does,” he says. The results found that teens with a significant group of friends not experiencing depression showed half the probability of developing depression and double the probability of recovering if they were depressed.

“The effect was big, much bigger than you see from antidepressants,” says Moore.

Importantly, depressed friends didn’t counter the effect. “They don’t seem to drag their friends down,” says Moore.

The data used by the researchers was collected as part of the ongoing National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health current being conducted in the United States.

“Depression is a major public health concern worldwide,” says professor Frances Griffiths, head of social science and systems in health at Warwick Medical School, who also worked on the research. “Our results offer implications for improving adolescent mood … that encouraging friendship networks between adolescents could reduce both the incidence and prevalence of depression among teenagers.”

Although this study observed changes occurring over six to 12 months, Moore believes it may occur even sooner. “We only got these two snapshots [of time],” he says.

While the study has its limitations, further research could open up avenues for treatment methods that focus on social functioning rather than medication.

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