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Children’s mental illnesses are socially contagious

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:

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