York study finds emotional neediness linked to recurring depression

A study by a York University professor has found evidence that emotionally needy individuals are at greater risk for recurring depression.

Myriam Mongrain, professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health, studied graduate students with a history of depression, rating their levels of emotional dependence. Participants were re-interviewed 20 months later to determine the recurrence of a major depressive episode.

Mongrain found that emotionally needy individuals were at significantly greater risk of relapse than their “love-dependent” counterparts. Researchers refer to love dependence as a type of interpersonal relationship in which one’s needs are not sacrificed and self-definition is not compromised.

Right: Myriam Mongrain

“Our findings suggest that the more mature form of interpersonal dependence may actually confer protective advantages and possibly some resilience against depressive recurrences,” says Mongrain.

The study allowed her to delve further into subtypes of dependence, a personality orientation associated with depression. Her findings support a three-factor model of emotional dependence, which separates the trait into unhealthy, intermediate and healthy types.

“The unique contribution of this study is in the delineation of healthy and unhealthy aspects of emotional dependence,” Mongrain says. “We tend to think of dependency as a negative term, but some forms are quite adaptive, as long as the individual can retain a healthy level of assertiveness.”

The three levels of emotional dependence were derived from a factor analysis of scores on scales measuring the following traits: neediness; submissiveness; pleasing others; caring about what others think; exploitability; connectedness and love. Surprisingly, men and women did not differ significantly on any of the measures. Mongrain adds that women typically score higher on measures of emotional dependence. However, her sample consisted of individuals with a history of major depression, and as such, may have been different from the overall population.

Age, however, was a factor, with participants who were older reporting being less needy and not caring as much about what people thought of them. Mongrain notes this result has been replicated in other samples. The average age of study participants was 29.

The study, “Healthy and unhealthy dependence: Implications for major depression,” was published in the September 2008 issue of the British Journal of Clinical Psychology. David Flora, professor of psychology at York, aided in data analysis.