Many illnesses are contagious. You’d do well to avoid your neighbor’s sneeze, for example, and to wash your hands after tending to your sick child.
But what about mental illness?
The idea that anxiety, autism or major depression could be transmitted through contact may sound crazy — and it probably is. There’s a lot we don’t know about the origins of mental illness, but the mechanisms identified so far point in other directions.
Nonetheless, we do know that people’s emotions can be affected by the emotions of those around them — a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion” — and that specific symptoms of mental disorders, such as binge eating, can sometimes spread among peers. We also know that many people hold scientifically unfounded views about transmission. For instance, some people believe that organ transplant recipients can acquire the personal characteristics of their donors, a view for which there’s no serious scientific support.
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