Perception of Mental Disorders as ‘Contagious’ Leads to Isolation


Willingness to interact with someone with a mental health diagnosis may be tied to the misperception that disorders can be transferred from one person to another, according to a new study published in the Journal of Memory & Cognition.

The researchers, Jessecae Marsh and Lindzi Shanks, point out that the way we categorize subjects in our experience impacts how we interact with those subjects.  For example, “at a grocery store we do not just categorize these things as apples and these things as pears; rather, we make this categorization to then make a decision about which to buy.”

In their study, they aim to explore how beliefs about categories guide real-world interactions.  Specifically, they set up three different experiments to explore how beliefs about mental disorders affect one’s willingness to interact with people diagnosed with such a disorder.

In the first experiment, they surveyed 45 undergraduate students about their beliefs about the communicability, causal origin, essentialism, and controllability of various mental disorder categories.  They then compared the findings with participants reported willingness to interact with members of those same categories. They found, “the more a disorder was believed to be communicable, the less willing people were to interact with its members.”

To assess whether or not a participant’s willingness to interact is tied to perceived communicability, rather than other preexisting notions about mental disorder categories, the researchers set up a second experiment.  This time they came up with artificial mental disorders and surveyed participants reactions to the varying descriptions.  Participants’ willingness to interact with members of the artificial disorders was, again, found to be influenced by the disorder’s perceived communicability.

For the third experiment, Marsh and Shanks had 122 undergraduates answer a questionnaire, rating the degree to which they thought various mental and physical illnesses were communicable.  They were also asked to give an estimated length of contact time needed to catch the disorder and describe in detail how they believed it could pass from one person to another.  Medical illnesses, like chickenpox and measles, were described as being transmitted very rapidly through physical contact.  But mental disorders, they found, “were predominantly described as having a general social transmission mechanism” and as being contracted through extended exposure.

Participants rarely identified a specific mechanism by which a mental disorder could be transmitted rather, mental disorder category membership was often described as “a ‘slippery slope,’ where emulating dysfunctional behavior is the first step toward being a member of a disorder category.”

This study is suggestive of the need for general education around mental health issues to reduce stigma and decrease social distancing.


See New Hampshire Public Radio’s coverage of this study here →


Marsh, J. K., & Shanks, L. L. (2014). Thinking you can catch mental illness: How beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members. Memory & cognition42(7), 1011-1025. (Abstract)


  1. The ironic thing is this study is actually halfway correct… being around depressed, anxious, terrified, delusional people does tend to create feelings of anxiety, fear, confusion, and even delusions in those near them. But this phenomenon has little to do with illusory mental illness labels.

    Regarding this statement, “This study is suggestive of the need for general education around mental health issues to reduce stigma and decrease social distancing.”


    On the contrary, this study is suggestive of the need for abolition of the DSM, abolition of most mental health diagnostic labels, and a new understanding of emotional problems via taking an individual etiological history and listening to the stories that people tell..

    Report comment

    • Abolition of the DSM…

      I was reading some stuff about mental disorders in children and really had an like an “epiphany” I swear.

      Not anger about the psychiatric drugging of children but just a great big WTF .

      What is all this ? So complicated expensive and absolute total useless nonsense. I was just like wait what people have been raising children successfully since the beginning of man without all this.

      Page after page of policies and procedures and laws and diagnoses and this and that… What is this, where did it come from and we never had this before and how has it really helped anyone ?

      The full understanding that all of it is complete nonsense on a massive scale just hit me instead of my usual reaction to websites like that.

      A huge multi billion dollar industry of nonsence.

      Even this article is non sense.

      All this time and money to study peoples reaction to psychiatric labels, its bizarre . They treat it like it matters when psychiatry should just be brushed off as something stupid , irrelevant made up nonsense.

      Report comment

  2. Message from the psychiatric industry:

    Stop the stigma !

    Just because WE label people as different YOU should not view them as different.

    I am totally confused wait.

    WE tell the public people we accuse of mental illness have a brain disease and are different than you without any scientific proof but YOU should not see it that way.

    No wait,

    Forget it, I will never understand that stop the stigma message.

    Report comment

  3. Copycat, you’re right, it’s all one gigantic, greed inspired, multi billion dollar hoax. Just as were psychiatry’s “mental illnesses” during the Nazi era, and in Russia. Psychiatry has always been, and still is, a tool of the evil banks, corporations, and governments who want to unjustly steal from and control all of humanity. It’s just that they’ve taken over the US now, and many of us weren’t expecting that.

    Report comment

    • It is monumental absurdity of epic proportions.

      I reading about mental health and schools when it really hit me what what does all this accomplish ???

      It didn’t even exist a few decades ago and things were BETTER.

      This article :

      In the first experiment, they surveyed 45 undergraduate students about their beliefs about the communicability, causal origin, essentialism, and controllability of various mental disorder categories. They then compared …

      Who cares.

      Does this feed or house anyone ?

      Does it do anything useful for mankind ?

      What we could do with the billions and billions of dollars in time and energy wasted on psychiatric nonsence.

      Psychiatric ensconce costs more than the Apollo missions and we have very very little to show for it except legions of people on drugs and a growing number of “ill” people as a result.

      They tried mass drugging children and the schools are still failing and worse.

      And more time and effort to study “Perception of Mental Disorders as ‘Contagious’

      Absolutely unbelievable.

      Report comment

      • It is sick beyond the wildest dreams of the decent – it’s an entire industry whose function is gaslighting people. The psychiatric system some day, I hope, will be seen as nothing but an appalling relic of the age of unchecked, psychopathic paternalism – a get out of jail free card for the child molesters, incompetent doctors, wealthy drug dealers, greed and war mongers.

        But, that’s just hope and prayers for a better future, as part of me is but a beautiful dreamer, almost murdered by psychiatry, and my former paternalistic religion, for my dreams. But, “I’m not dead yet,” so I’ll keep dreaming, imagining, creating, and working for a better world.

        “I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will live as one.”

        Report comment

  4. Please do not forget the physical effects of the psychiatric drugs to make people look crazy.
    tardive dyskinesia and other physical manifestations.
    If people look crazy, they will be treated differently at best.
    The human face is what everyone looks for , for feedback during a conversation.

    The psychs report or complain of lack of emotion “Affective flattening, Akathisia, ect” when they have just poisoned their patients brain. They are con men and quacks.

    Do not get too angry at them in public, or you might be named psychotic then fall under their power and be “helped” for your illness of anger.

    Report comment

    • Yes, now that the “genetic” basis for “mental illnesses” is seen as fraud, they have to prop up belief in them by claiming they’re “contagious.” When will humanity wake up and realize the psychiatrists spent 60 years writing a “bible” of stigmatizations, which medicalizes the human condition and nicely describes the iatrogenic illnesses their drugs create?

      Report comment

  5. I was a good patient. too. I took my meds and went to therapy and all that other “you know what.” What did it do? It stole the real me; the me that the Good Lord created even before I was conceived and born. What I know now is that it is okay to be sensitive, vulnerable, imaginative, intuitive, creative, poetic, and artistic. I can feel what other people feel not all the time; but, most of the time. When I was taking the drugs, I felt nothing except a pain within that developed into no feeling at all. Nothing. And, God made some of us to feel deeply. So, perhaps; what they allegedly and caustically call as “mental illness” might be “contagious” to those of truly alive in our feelings, imagination, sensitivity, and intuition. When I was a child; I would walk into a room filled with “adults” and register their feelings unto mine and automatically; say, “I’m sorry.” and get into trouble. God made me this way. I no longer say I’m sorry. God had His reasons. It is blasphemy for these psychiatrists, the mental illness criminal conspiracy and those brainwashed by thus to think otherwise. It is not defective, a disease, a disorder, or some pathology to be and act as God made you. Thank you.

    Report comment