Ten-Year Study Shows Loneliness can be Contagious

Plenty of medical health issues are understood as being contagious, and specific measures are taken to avoid encouraging their spread. But can mental health concerns be contagious? A new study conducted at the University of Chicago with collaboration from the University of California at San Diego and Harvard University proposes that, in fact, at least one mental health issue can be spread from one person to the next: loneliness. The study was conducted over the course of ten years and worked towards taking an in-depth look at the potential for people to become lonely when in the presence of others experiencing the same concern.

Researchers found that people experiencing loneliness tended to move away from complex or frequent social involvement, experiencing fewer connections with others over time. Before such people effectively left their social circles, however, the study shows that they were capable of making an emotional impact on those with which they still had contact. Thus, a person affected by deep feelings of loneliness and responding to these feelings through the common, if personally unexamined, approach of withdrawing from social contact may encourage others around them to feel alienated and lonely through negative communications and downbeat thoughts and feelings. Potentially setting off entire groups of people and encouraging loneliness on a widespread scale, such actions may contribute to the frequency of feeling lonely experienced by many people in the modern world.

The study’s authors note that loneliness can be understood as a biological response to the need for human relationships, elements of life which have helped mankind survive throughout the course of evolution. Through understanding how loneliness arises –and how it may move and spread among communities— mental health professionals may be able to improve the quality and efficacy of care for this common mental health concern.

© Copyright 2009 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nikki


    December 5th, 2009 at 12:32 PM

    well I have heard that becoming obese can be contagious so I see why there is no reason to believe that different mental health issues are not the same way



    December 6th, 2009 at 3:39 AM

    whoa…this sounds creepy… after all, who would want a lot more people affected by this already high-hitting disorder…?

    At the initial stages, a person is not so removed from his social set-up but as the disorder proceeds to further levels, he will start feeling choked whenever he has a social companionship. This, I think, is the stage wherein the contagious nature of loneliness is transferred from one person to another and hence is the stage on which concentration of the mental health professionals needs to be.

  • Hop


    December 6th, 2009 at 3:50 PM

    Hm, I not quite convinced, mostly because loneliness is not easily quantifiable and for some of us, there’s not a cognitive entry and exit point from loneliness.

  • albert


    December 7th, 2009 at 2:36 AM

    Well I agree that loneliness is contagious…why,some people even tend to seclude themselves after they have spent some time with loners… although not always,this I have observed… Some think being alone is going to help them.But trust me,it is only going to aggravate your problems.

  • Olivia


    December 7th, 2009 at 4:10 PM

    An even better reaaon to rid myself of negativity and negative people!

  • Owen


    December 8th, 2009 at 2:14 AM

    My wife went through severe post partum blues and I think a lot of that actually rubbed on to me. There were no game nights, out with the buddies night or simply no fun at all. I remember avoiding people I loved being with, eating my lunch all alone. I think depression is dangerous to the person undergoing it as well as ones that they interract with more often.

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