Children’s mental illnesses are socially contagious…

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  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:

  • Social Contagion Example #1, Children’s Diet. Too much omega-6 (soybean oil, corn oil, etc.) and too little omega-3 (mostly in fish) in our modern diet predicts lifetime mental illnesses in children, youth and adults [1, 2]. Dr. Hibbeln carefully traced rapid increase in omega-6 consumption after World War II to increased the risk of mental illnesses of children born after the late 1950s, illustrated by a mound of research [3-8]. A recent consensus [8] concludes: “nutrition…should now be considered as mainstream elements of psychiatric practice, with research, education, policy, and health promotion reflecting this new paradigm.” 

    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, 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.

  • Social Contagion Example #2, Children’s Classrooms. Not far from DC is Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention, where some of the best studies on how early exposure to peaceful, positive classrooms versus classrooms filled with misbehavior have lifetime impact on children’s mental illnesses, including the ultimate Stage 4 consequence of serious mental disorders, suicide. My colleagues and I at Hopkins have significantly shown that experimentally reducing classroom problematic behaviors and creating a joyful, positive classroom filled with self-regulation and prosocial peers creates mental health and reduces current and lifetime psychiatric disorders.
  • Social Contagion Example #3, Children’s Sleep Patterns. Sleep disturbances among children are increasing because of electronic media in children’s bedrooms, especially now because of cellphones and tablets. Sleep disturbance causes mental illness that just a small selection of articles in PubMed reveal. What is most interesting is that sleep deprivation and drug use among teens is contagious across their social networks.

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.

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