Are Emotional Disorders Contagious?

Emotional disorders might be contagious. The general view is that emotions are contagious and emotional disorders are not contagious.[1]  This is what was posted on the Big Think.

Emotions are contagious. Like the common cold, stress can spread to the people around you, as can good moods and bad moods. Knowledge of this has led some people to believe that mental illness can be transmitted as well. And while the symptoms of the disease may be transferred—misery loves company, as they say—a study published in the journal Memory & Cognition concludes the illness itself is impossible to transfer.[2]

Researchers Jessecae Marsh and Lindzi Shanks asked a group of individuals if they believed certain non-infectious diseases were indeed infectious. The group responded that alcoholism had a 56 percent chance of transmission, anorexia 35.7 percent, and depression 32.2 percent. These were the most “communicable” diseases. Whereas disorders like Tourette’s (4.2 percent), autism (5.3 percent), and schizophrenia (7.4 percent) scored much lower on the transmission scale.[3]

The article went on to note that people’s willingness to interact with those afflicted with a mental disorder was related to how contagious they thought they were. A higher rate of a disorder’s possible transmission, the less likely participants were to interact with them. [4]

Clearly there is more incentive to say that mental disorders are not contagious because to say otherwise might cause victimisation to people with mental difficulties.

So how did the participants think these disorders were being transferred? Well, through social interactions. One individual explained, “If you hang out with someone that drinks all the time, you will soon be drinking a lot as well.”

According to the article this is false. According to the researchers, another study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society found evidence suggesting that more frequent social interaction actually protects against depression.

A co-author Edward Hill, said: “Our results suggest that promotion of any friendship between adolescents can reduce depression since having depressed friends does not put them at risk, but having healthy friends is both protective and curative.”

According to the Health Times (2017) Depression: Who’s nursing the nurses? And, can your job result in a severe case of trauma?

The Trauma model of mental illness.  oppression

The trauma model of mental disorders emphasises the effects of physical, sexual and psychological trauma as key causal factors in the development of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and psychoses.[5]/[6]  Whether trauma occurs during childhood or in adult life reactions to traumatic events are the same as those classified in mental illness. In psychoanalysis Freud approached mental impacts of child sexual abuse and hysteria as having their roots in trauma. The French psychotherapist and philosopher Pierre Marie Félix Janet (1859 – 1947) also saw the connection between trauma and mental dysfunction. He specialised in the field of dissociation and traumatic memory.  Janet studied under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Psychological Laboratory in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris (in the same facility as Freud),  Janet first published the results of his research in his philosophy thesis in 1889 and in his medical thesis, L’état mental des hystériques, in 1892. He earned a degree in medicine the following year in 1893. In 1898, Janet was appointed lecturer in psychology at the Sorbonne, and in 1902 he attained the chair of experimental and comparative psychology at the Collège de France, a position he held until 1936. He was a member of the Institut de France from 1913, and was a central figure in French psychology in the first half of the 20th century. [7] Janet was also one of the first people to allege a connection between events in a subject’s past life and his or her present-day trauma, and coined the words “dissociation”  and “subconscious”.  His study of the “magnetic passion” or “rapport” between the patient and the hypnotist later gave rise to accounts of the transference between patient and therapist.[8] [9] [10]

The 20th century saw Janet developing a grand model of the mind in terms of levels of energy, efficiency and social competence, which he set out in publications including Obsessions and Psychasthenia (1903) and From Anguish to Ecstasy (1926), among others.[11]  With its focus on the construction of the social personality, this model has been compared to the social behaviourism of George Herbert Mead. Much of Mead’s work centred on the development of the self and the objectivity of the world within the social realm: he insisted that “the individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings” [12]

Jacques Lacan had praise for Janet for his focus on feelings of persecution and what has been terms the phenomenological moments in social behaviour .[13]  Phenomenological moments and dissociation can be directly linked to the incidence of trauma.

Janet is ranked alongside William James and Wilhelm Wundt as one of the founding fathers of psychology.[14]  His trauma models emphasise that traumatic experiences are more common and more significant in terms of aetiology than has often been thought in people diagnosed with mental disorders. Such models have their roots in early experiences of chronic maltreatment and severe neglect which can later manifest psychological problems. [15]

In the 1960s trauma models were promulgated by the humanist and antipsychiatry movements, particularly in regard to understanding schizophrenia and the role of the family.[16]  R. D. Laing ( 1927 –1989) who wrote extensively on psychosis argued that  schizophrenia was a theory not a fact. Laing’s views on the causes and treatment of psychopathological phenomena were influenced by his study of existential philosophy and ran counter to the conventional methods of treatment such as electroshock and drugs. He focused on the direct traumatic experiences of the patient rather than a diagnosis of mental illness.

Personality disorders have also been a focus in cases of trauma, particularly borderline personality disorder, with the role of dissociation, fight, flight and freezing responses, which have been listed under the trauma model.  In addition, some versions of trauma models have implicated the foetal environment and the event of being born as the cause of trauma, but these are not well-supported in the academic literature, the idea was first promoted by Otto Rank in the 1950s.

People can be traumatised by a wide range of circumstances, not just by people. Institutions such as schools and recreational groups have been implicated in trauma, but one of the most prevalent causes amongst women seems to be the trauma of giving birth as well as the expectations that follow.  Post-partum depression has become common in western society.

Trauma models highlight the stressful and traumatic factors in relationships both in early attachments to a new born and in the development of mature relationships. Communication in general can be difficult for someone who has experienced intense trauma.

Toxic relationships are often presented as a cause in mental disorders and treated with standard medications which rarely address the real problem. More recently, there has been a strong focus on psychiatric orthodoxy and informed criticisms of the mental health system, as well as  genetics and the neurological changes to the brain that have arisen from traumatic experiences. These explorations are not always available at the time of crisis and most people have to muster their own resilience.

Medications cannot overcome trauma, coping skills have to be learned and the past events have to be accepted before the individual can move on.


[1] Emotions Are Contagious, But Emotional Disorders Aren’t by Natalie Shoemaker n/d

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Jeronimus, B.F., Ormel, J., Aleman, A., Penninx, B.W.J.H., Riese, H. (2013). “Negative and positive life events are associated with small but lasting change in neuroticism”. Psychological Medicine. 43 (11): 2403–15.

[6] Read J, van Os J, Morrison AP, Ross CA (November 2005). “Childhood trauma, psychosis and schizophrenia: a literature review with theoretical and clinical implications”. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 112 (5): 330–50.

[7] Ibid and

[8] O. L. Zangwill, ‘Hypnotism, history of’, in Gregory ed., p. 332

[9]   Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) p. 147 and p. 406.

[10]  Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) p. 50.

[11] Ellenberger, p. 386

[12] ·  ·  Baldwin, John (2009). George Herbert Mead. Sage. p. 7.

[13] George Herbert Mead, Philosophy”. Retrieved 2016-02-10.

[14] Jeronimus, B.F., Ormel, J., Aleman, A., Penninx, B.W.J.H., Riese, H. (2013). “Negative and positive life events are associated with small but lasting change in neuroticism”. Psychological Medicine. 43 (11): 2403–15.

[15] Miller, David (2009). George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World. University of Texas Press. pp. xii–xix. ISBN 0-292-72700-3.

[16] Ritzer, George (2008). Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-352818-2.