Mental health issues ‘transmit’ in social circles

Mental disorders can
News research suggests mental disorders can be somewhat contagious within adolescent social networks. | Photo: Skynesher (iStock)

Certain mental health disorders have been found to “transmit” within social networks formed at school.

A major study of 700,000 young people in Finland, released this week, found the number of classmates diagnosed with a mental disorder was associated with a higher risk of mental disorders later in life.

Associate Professor Christian Hakulinen, from the University of Helsinki, said the connection was particularly strong in the first year of follow-up with the students.

“The link was most pronounced in the case of mood, anxiety and eating disorders,” Dr Hakulinen said.

“The findings significantly deepen our understanding of how mental health problems develop and affect other people in our social networks.

“When taking preventive measures, it’s worthwhile considering that mental disorders can spread from one adolescent to another.”

The researchers used population-wide registry data from pupils at 860 Finnish schools and followed them for about 11 years from the ninth grade.

Dr Hakulinen said the findings were consistent with earlier studies in the United States in which depressive symptoms were found to be capable of transmitting  from one individual to another in social networks.

The new research, using such a broad database, removed any bias in choosing which social networks to study.

Dr Hakulinen said further research would be needed to fully investigate how mental disorders could potentially be transmitted between individuals.

“It may be possible, for instance, that the threshold for seeking help for mental health issues is lowered when there are one or more people in your social network who have already sought help for their problems,” he said.

“In fact, this kind of normalisation of diagnosis and treatment can be considered beneficial contagion of mental disorders.”

More information is available on the University of Helsinki website.