Social Contagions of Emotion and Mental Health

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Social Contagions of Emotion and Mental Health

                                                                                                 Zika Virus outbreak during the year 2015-2016 triggered public fear / Photo by Wikimedia Commons


A research team comprised of experts from Louisiana State University and Pennsylvania State University found in a new study that people who keep their fears at bay during health crises can end up falling into a cycle of emotional suppression and fear. The study was ultimately focused on public fears and how they manifest during disease outbreaks, and the outbreak used to measure these fears and emotional suppression was the Zika virus outbreak of 2015-2016. Negative emotions and how people act on them in the face of contagious or infectious outbreaks can be, in and of themselves, somewhat contagious, though, as evidenced by yet another study of what mental health experts refer to as suicide contagion.

Mental health pundits have reached a consensus in recent years that the suicides of many high-profile celebrities can yield increased risk of suicide contagion. They define it as a process wherein one’s suicide or a series of suicides — not necessarily those of celebrities or high-profile people at all — can contribute to an uptick in suicidal thoughts and behaviors among others in the spheres or under the influences of those who committed the fatal self-harms. This is especially affective on those known to harbor suicide risk factors or suicidal thoughts. “If they’re already struggling with [depression] or risk of suicide, they’re already trying to get information about how other people are experiencing it,” according to John Ackerman, a suicide prevention coordinator for Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Suicide Prevention and Research in Ohio.

“Especially when you’ve got high-profile people who are successful and who the world views as having a lot going for them and they die by suicide, it can generate feelings of hopelessness,” Ackerman adds. The U.S. recorded a massive uptick in suicides in the wake of notorious comedian Robin Williams’s suicide to the tune of a 9.85 percent increase. That yielded an extra 1,841 deaths by suicide in 2014 according to the study, which was recently published in PLoS One. That study was predicated on monthly suicide data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the collection took place during a 16-year period from 1999 to 2015. Researchers subsequently reviewed the data to assess how suicide rates changed following Robin Williams’s death, to which American media commonly alluded to as an abrupt surprise.



“In the story with Robin Williams, you saw a 10 percent increase in deaths especially among middle-aged men using the method that was described,” says Ackerman, an expert who was unaffiliated with the research team that conducted the study. “So we get concerned with celebrity suicides because there’s lots of attention and lots of specific reporting about it in a sensational way. People may be more likely to identify with that person.” The striking phenomenon of suicide contagion has been observed in military units, schools, families and general coteries of friends.

In other words, it’s not just disease but also disposition that, to some extent, can prove contagious, which is why that infectiousness can be compounded by more overt health crises in which there is an actual outbreak of some kind of illness to such a degree that people begin to feel overwhelmed by the fear of contracting the illness in question. The reason for this, according to the first study conducted by the researchers from Penn State and Louisiana State, is that some of those people are likely to repress that fear and find themselves irrevocably damaged by it on an emotional level later. That’s the conclusion that the study draws, and the case they make for it is based on the evidence collected from the Zika outbreak in Brazil, which occurred back in 2015.

Early that year, Brazilian health officials first reported Zika cases via skin rashes to the World Health Organization. By summer, they confirmed that Zika virus was the cause, and the outbreak rapidly pushed not just Brazil but surrounding countries as well to report cases of neurological disorders in connection with the virus, including Guillain-Barré Syndrome. This came with a most unusual uptick in congenital microcephaly among newborns, which is a deformity characterized by very small head sizes. These infants experience hearing and vision impairments, seizures and developmental disabilities. The WHO announced the correlation between Zika infections of pregnant women and congenital microcephaly in February 2016 as a public health emergency of international concern.

The research team measured the emotional responses of pregnant women in the US during the outbreak by recruiting 1,002 women between the ages of 18 and 35 in states believed to be at risk due to being within the migratory ranges of the Zika-carrying mosquitoes — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Florida, of course, did eventually report a Zika containment problem. 912 participants provided usable data, which was gathered via survey. The researchers found participants who reportedly suppressed their fears of Zika as experiencing far greater levels of fear later, which resulted in exorbitant emotional stress. Media reports were the common triggers for these fears. “It turns out that not only is suppression ineffective at handling fear, but it’s counter-productive,” according to James Dillard, lead author on the study. “It creates a cycle of fear — and it’s a vicious cycle.”

“When people become frightened there are some good things that can happen — they search out information, they get politically engaged, they might engage in self-protective behavior — but when people get really scared, it’s harmful for them,” Dillard adds. “Stress hormones pour out and staying in that hyper-vigilant state — fear —  is also resource intensive.” These media reports, of course, play a similar role in instigating the repression and subsequent expression of greater fear to the role that they play in promoting the suicide contagion.


                                                                                                 Data showed that suicide incidents increase up to 9.85 percent / Photo by Getty Images




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