Teens ‘transmit’ mental health disorders in the classroom, according to research and scientists are baffled

Yes, they really are spreading them to one another

Sad teenage girl in the classroom
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you think mental health disorders can't be transmitted, scientists have found teens in classrooms are doing just that - but tackling it is another matter entirely. 

If your teen will not socialise or suggest they're feeling hopeless about their future, you're going to be concerned about their mental health. In the current climate, a lot of emphasis is placed on how social media affects teenagers' mental health as we embrace the effects of a digital world. Although understanding and treating mental health conditions can be a difficult and complex process, the one thing we've always felt sure about is that they aren't transmissible - until now.

A study of over 700,000 teenagers found a positive correlation between classmates diagnosed with a mental disorder and other members of the same class receiving the same mental disorder diagnosis later in life. Even after considering the impact of an array of different social factors on the same diagnosis being identified in teens, these were found not to have any influence on diagnoses at all - parental mental disorders or their socioeconomic position during childhood had less impact on developing a mental health disorder than teenagers being in the classroom with someone who had the same one, implying it's somehow 'transmitted.'

Specific conditions found to be 'spreading' around teens include mood, anxiety, and eating disorders. However, despite this link being found, researchers are baffled as to the cause and what to do about it. Currently, their only suggestions include taking prevention and intervention measures that specifically consider the impact of peer influences on adolescent mental health. They add that further research is needed to clarify exactly which factors are responsible in the apparent 'transmission' of such issues.

However, some believe that as mental disorders become normalised, individuals are more likely to recognise symptoms and seek a diagnosis and help. This therefore refutes the idea of disorders being transferred, but offers an explanation for the study findings.   

"A study of over 700,000 teenagers found a positive correlation between classmates diagnosed with a mental disorder and other members of the same class receiving the same mental disorder diagnosis later in life."

There's also the very strong possibility that peer influence could take some responsibility for the research findings - transmission could happen through peer social influence, and issues relating to conformity and even seeking out attention in the same way as those who engage in sadfishing. We spoke to a teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, with experience of teens demonstrating both of these reasons for having the same mental health diagnosis as other members of their class.

She tells us "Having the same mental illness or problem in school has become a way for teenagers to fit in now. Where issues relating to self-harm and anxiety would've been kept hidden by previous generations, I've noticed an upturn in children almost jumping on a bandwagon and using a diagnosis to find or keep their friends, and occasionally like a badge of honour. 

"It makes identifying those who are genuinely struggling difficult, but we have to treat every case seriously of course. They're getting so many different messages from all over, while trying desperately to carve out their own identity. Although emulating mental health issues does have roots in reduced stigma and improved identification, it's becoming a problem that not all cases are genuine, and that's hard for teaching staff to navigate without more specialist input."     

For more on teens, you might need to talk to yours about the worrying wellness challenges doing the rounds online. If you need it, there's one question to ask your teen to improve your relationship, and reflective parenting could help your teen manage their big emotions.

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.