Children’s mental illnesses are socially contagious…
December 03, 2015
December 03, 2015
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 www.pubmed.gov. 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:
That our children “choose” to eat what is widely advertised to children should be obvious to any parent or grandparent. This I know first hand because of my earlier work Children’s Television Network and McDonald’s, but you can read a sample of such social contagion on the National Library of Medicine, http://bit.ly/food-choices-kids. New studies show that changing the dietary ratios of omega-6 and omega-3 in children, youth and adults can prevent or reduce mental illnesses.
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.
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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.