Children’s mental illnesses are socially contagious…

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis Embry

What? Our kids are catching mental illnesses? Yes, but not typically by germs. This will take a bit of flexible thinking to understand what people intuit and good science confirms.

Consider most humans recognize many diseases are contagious. Many in my generation lived through the polio epidemic, whose virus crippled or killed kids and adults when we were growing up. Before the discovery of the Salk vaccine, we knew how the disease was spread. That’s why we were forbidden to go swimming—a terrible constraint for kids like me growing up in hot Phoenix. Some communities even had quarantines. Families had lots of fear.

On November 21, this year, Dr. Joseph Hibbeln from the National Institutes of Health gave an amazing presentation for nearly two hours at the annual conference of the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. I’ve known him and his work for 15 years, and it keeps getting better and better. His talk was stunning, and you can capture the breadth of his scientific work just by going to the National Library of Medicine at  Search his name, Joseph Hibbeln, and you’ll start to get the drift of my reasoning.

Few people realize that most mental disorders—even serious ones—are socially contagious. I know you’re thinking: “What? Is he crazy? It’s a genetic or biological disorder.”  And the TV ads only Americans see, and hear the drill about this biological inevitability, many times per day with a strange caveat: “…of unknown origin” or some other waffling statement. So what do I mean by socially contagious? Here are a few examples of the social contagion of mental illnesses, which can be modified—if we as society choose to act like we did when polio contagion threatened our children:

As you might imagine, the combination of two or more of these social contagions really accelerates the risk of serious mental illnesses. A child growing up in a “bad neighborhood” will be likely exposed to all three of these socially contagious vectors of mental illnesses. Almost every middle-class or upper class kid is exposed to one or two of these socially contagious vectors on average in the United States. Hmm, that might well be why the United States has an epidemic of mental illnesses (suicide, anxiety, ADHD, depression, etc.) among our children, which is becoming more and more evident in very diverse data sets: pharmaceutical sales reported by the Wall Street Journal, by military authorities, by Medicaid data, and scientific epidemiological studies such as the National Comorbidity study. If you’d prefer to see the evidence in a video, checkout my Congressional Briefing on December 3, 2014 to see the graphs and other tidbits.

Families reading this might have negative reaction: “Here we go again blaming the parents. ”I understand the history of blaming families for children’s mental illnesses, which still is a thriving notion among the public, political leaders, and at countless IEP meetings I’ve been to. No, this is really about a contagion, in many ways like the polio epidemic—a contagion we have much better science to prevent than we did when Salk’s vaccine was proven to affect antibody expression in 1954, before the large-scale study directed by Thomas Francis that actually prevented polio in 1955. There are scores of well-designed longitudinal studies now about actual primary prevention of mental illness by different scientists around the world; we’ve just not taken the leap to prevent mental illnesses at a population level in the U.S. like the Thomas Francis polio study.

Can we prevent the social contagion of mental illness at a population level? Yes, I think we can because of the existing prevention science is much better than Salk’s original study on polio contagion. How that might happen rapidly—like the Thomas Francis study proved—will be my next essay.


  1. Hibbeln, J.R., et al., Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006. 83(6 Suppl): p. 1483S-1493S.
  2. Nieminen, L.R., et al., Relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and plasma neuroactive steroids in alcoholism, depression and controls. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 2006. 75(4-5): p. 309-14.
  3. Iribarren, C., et al., Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: relationship with hostility in young adults--the CARDIA study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004. 58(1): p. 24-31.
  4. Kitajka, K., et al., Effects of dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on brain gene expression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2004. 101(30): p. 10931-6.
  5. Levant, B., J.D. Radel, and S.E. Carlson, Decreased brain docosahexaenoic acid during development alters dopamine-related behaviors in adult rats that are differentially affected by dietary remediation. Behav Brain Res, 2004. 152(1): p. 49-57.
  6. Liu, J., et al., Malnutrition at age 3 years and externalizing behavior problems at ages 8, 11, and 17 years. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2004. 161(11): p. 2005-13.
  7. La Guardia, M., et al., Omega 3 fatty acids: biological activity and effects on human health. Panminerva Medica, 2005. 47(4): p. 245-57.
  8. Sarris, J., et al., International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research consensus position statement: nutritional medicine in modern psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 2015. 14(3): p. 370-371.

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Dennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. His work and that of colleagues cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. He was responsible for drafting of the letter signed by  23 scientists, who collectively represent scores of randomized prevention trials of mental illnesses published in leading scientific journals. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America. Dr. Embry serves on the Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council.


  1. Dennis Embry's avatar
    Dennis Embry
    | Permalink
    Thank you, Lily, for a cogent comment. Many "mental illnesses" have to be seen largely either as the significantly the result of evolutionary mismatch such A deficient vitamin D3 altering gene expression causal for schizophrenia ( This mismatch is happening because people are not living in conditions that evolution selected for our survival. Another example of mismatch is that dopamine 4 alle 7 repeat is supposedly causal for ADHD, but it is a gene highly associated with human migration requiring risk taking, novelty seeking and higher IQ.

    And thanks Lisa for the kudos. I'm work hard at trying to translate amazing science that people can act on to improve the mental health of our children. We will not be able to treat our way of this mess, given that 1 out of 2 kids will have had a significant mental disorder by age 18 from data in the IOM Report. We couldn't treat our way out of polio; we had to find a powerful, universal way to prevent it—and we did that very quickly.
  2. Lily's avatar
    | Permalink
    The challenge we are facing is that the literature is demonstrating that, yes, there are genetic realities that we have to deal with. However, the evidence also demonstrates that both somatic and germ cells experience mutations as a direct result of our environments--exactly what is discussed above--which impact the physiological functioning and result in symptomology we call mental illness. That is, some of those genetic roots of mental illness result from social inputs, just as biological underpinnings impact social functioning. Nature and nurture transform each other. Our policies must be flexible to allow for scientific advancement rather than freezing because we've started to identify biological factors for what was erroneously considered mental alone. Flipping to the other side of the unfounded Cartesian dichotomy is still wrong and is going to result in further failure to prevent and appropriately treat mental illness.
  3. Lisa Brockman's avatar
    Lisa Brockman
    | Permalink
    Thank you for making this information so accessible and easy to relate to. I look forward to the next installment on this hugely important topic. I am so grateful for and proud of you and your work!
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