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 Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.