Social Contagion vs. Viral Contagion

Over the past two weeks I’ve found myself see-sawing between being both fascinated and horrified as I like so many of you watch daily updates regarding the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

As it should be, much of our attention has been focused upon limiting contagion. In my opinion, at least in my home state of Ohio, our leaders deserve to be commended for their transparency, and commitment to education and information as soon as it is available.

Many years ago, working as an emergency room and psychiatric nurse, and across the last 10-15 years of intensive training in the areas of borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and trauma, I’ve seen first hand the effects of another kind of contagion often referred to as social contagion.

Social contagion theory suggests that issues such as body image dissatisfaction, the thin ideal, self-harm and suicidal behaviors among others may be learned from observation of and interaction with peers and via world wide media.

There is a significant amount of data that identify suicide as a social contagion behavior.

Fast forward to today. As a certified life coach working with the families of these same people, I am experiencing significant concern for the potential effects of the virus-related uncertainty and fear upon this vulnerable population of kids and parents. Specifically, I’m wondering how we can help them increase resilience and sustain a sense of hope as they are inevitably exposed to extreme coping behaviors of people world wide in response to the pandemic.

In terms of containing a pandemic it strikes me that we as parents, educators and practitioners must take at least as much time to educate ourselves and our children about psychologically contagious behaviors as we do related to physical contagion.

We must assume that we may be spending longer amounts of time with family members who have difficulty managing their emotions in a healthy way.

We must cope ahead and be as prepared for the possibility of mental health crisis as we are for medical crisis.

Even before the virus was identified our adolescents have been at increased risk for suicide. The facts are difficult to read.

As of 2017, the suicide rate among Americans ages 10-24 jumped 56% in 10 years.

Every day 16 young people die from suicide.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people.

The number of suicides are greater in young males but the rates of suicide for female youths has increased 12.5%. The rate for males increased 7.1%.

Only 45% of teenage girls who had an episode of depression in 2019 received treatment and 33% of teenage boys.

There is a lot of misguided information circulating on the internet. While there is still a lot of good research being done and treatments developed, we at this moment find ourselves in a crisis situation without time to hesitate.

We must educate parents, teachers and our youth to recognize depression in young people, provide access to care and to learn the warning signs of suicide.

Additionally, we must plan ahead for mental health emergencies. Having a personal safety plan for ourselves and our loved ones can save lives.

Make a list today:

  • Who do you know who may be at high risk?
  • How can you best support them?
  • Who would you call for help?
  • Where would you go for help?
  • Are your medications refilled?
  • Do you have a list of your insurance numbers and medications with dosages, treatment providers and their numbers?
  • What can you do to stay busy at home for an uncertain length of time?

Please share what works for you in the comments so we can make your successes and tips available to all who might need support and ideas.


National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-TALK (8255), or via chat platform

National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233

Crisis Text Line: text START to 741741

Why Are Young Americans Killing Themselves? (New York Times

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blond woman with short hair wearing glasses and smiling | Lisa Bond Coaching | DBT skills and solutions for borderline personality disorder and high emotional sensitivity

Hi, I'm Lisa!

My mission is to provide high quality, evidence-based tools to meet the unique needs of individuals and families who want to create a life worth living, and coaches who want to help others do the same.

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