Disclaimer: This article contains a discussion of depression, self-harm behavior and suicide.
On March 2, Dr. Rebecca Schwartz-Mette talked to University of Maine students and faculty about her research, “Contagion of Depression, Self Injury and Suicide in Adolescent Friendships: Investigating Intra- and Interpersonal Communication Processes,” as a part of the Department of Communication and Journalism’s Spring 2020 Colloquium Series.
The lecture focused mainly on how adolescents suffering from depression, or engaging in self-harm behavior and suicidal ideation, can influence others in their peer group and their individual emotional adjustments.
“We have all heard the saying ‘birds of a feather flock together,’ [and] that is the case [here]. We tend to be attracted to people who are similar [to us]. Interestingly, kids tend to form friendships with people that are similarly emotionally adjusted,” Dr. Schwartz explained.
She shared that once adolescents are in friendships, they influence one another tremendously, leading many people to assume that behaviors and attitudes are contagious. This has been dubbed the “contagion effect,” and has been studied in adult relationships, but is rarely examined in relationships between adolescents.
Schwartz-Mette shared that, through her research, she has found that psychology literature and decades of research indicate that adolescents that have a peer or friend that suffers from depression may have an increased risk for depression, self-injury and suicidal thoughts.
She explained that there are many studies regarding the contagion effects of romantic partners and college roommates, but very few for adolescents, which is what led her to conduct three studies with the hopes of finding a way to explain this phenomenon.
The first adolescent study that Schwartz-Mette conducted involved the effects of co-rumination. She explained that co-rumination is a “repetitive discussion, rehashing and speculation of problems,” and stated that it is a very common action for adolescent girls. She stated that co-rumination is linked with social and emotional trade-offs, because it makes two people feel very close and supported, indicating a high-quality friendship. However, the action is also linked with the development of depressive symptoms and anxiety in the long run. In this study, data was collected about co-rumination in friendships and the hypothesis that Schwartz-Mette had formed about the contagion effect was determined to be true. It was found that if one adolescent was experiencing depression, it is likely that they would co-ruminate with friends, predicting an increased risk for those friends to experience depression as well.
The second study focused on particular characteristics that make adolescents more susceptible to being affected by the contagion effect. The study found that adolescents that naturally have a great degree of empathy for others, which is linked with poor emotional self-regulation, are more likely to experience contagion via co-rumination. Additionally, it was found that contagion occurs more frequently in high-quality friendships, because of the great influence that adolescents in close relationships have on one another.
In the third study, Schwartz-Mette wanted to address the common belief that self-injury is a very contagious activity. She looked at three different vulnerabilities markers; deficits in the intrapersonal ability to regulate one’s own emotion, positive friendship quality and friendship conflict. Under these three markers, it was found that the correlation effect only influenced self-harming behavior for adolescents that had trouble regulating their own emotions.
Schwartz-Mette finished the lecture with a discussion about her current work on the Birch Project, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.
“The aim of this is to get [a lot more data, and to] really confirm and solidify how big the effects are for the socialization and contagion of [depressive symptoms, self-injury and suicidal ideation] not just within friendship [groups], but across social networks,” Schwartz-Mette explained.
Schwartz-Mette stated that the contagion effect is a critical issue. She shared that although the number of adolescents who die by suicide is fewer than adolescents who display depressive symptoms, suicide is the second leading cause of adolescent death in Maine. Additionally, the state’s suicide rate is twice the national average.
She shared that studies show that deaths by suicide in vulnerable populations of adolescents and young adults can be largely affected by world events. Schwartz-Mette mentioned that deaths by suicide in these populations went up after the 2016 election and after the first season of the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” was released, indicating that the contagion effect can spread through media as well as through direct interpersonal relationships.
Rebecca Schwartz-Mette is a professor in the psychology department at UMaine. She became a licensed psychologist in 2013. Her research is focused on understanding the intersections between interpersonal behavior and psychopathology in adolescents. She is currently the chair of the American Psychological Association ethics committee.
If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, Maine’s Crisis Hotline can be reached by calling 1-888-568-1112.