Mass Hysteria | Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI)
Mass psychogenic illness (MPI), also called mass sociogenic illness, mass psychogenic disorder, epidemic hysteria, or mass hysteria, is the rapid spread of signs and symptoms of illness affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from ‘a disorder of the nervous system involving excitation, loss, or impairment of function, whereby physical complaints which are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic etiology.
Disorder of psychological origin with relatively benign somatic manifestations, which affect many people over a limited period, by means of sound and visual propagation, without identifiable organic cause.
Formerly called mass hysteria, the mass psychogenic phenomenon is characterized by the fact that a group of people present, over a limited period, similar physical symptoms whose material cause is difficult to detect or even absent. Mass psychogenic phenomena have several relatively common characteristics:
- An index case from which the disease spreads, sound and visual (emotional suggestion).
- Women, children, adolescents are more readily affected.
- Presence of a stressful anxiety factor, often in a predisposing workplace.
- Aspecific, inconstant, benign physical symptoms (headaches, redness, discomfort, etc.).
- Absence of determining environmental factor explaining the physical symptoms.
The mass psychogenic phenomenon is sensitive to the distressing atmosphere generally aroused by the presence of the media and medical and social actors in the face of the epidemic. The psychogenic origin and the extent of the phenomenon, associated with the reality of the physical symptoms, make the diagnosis difficult. However, this must be mentioned early in order to stop the spread and de-dramatize the situation.
Etiology (Study of the causes of diseases)
Mass psychogenic illness involves the spread of disease symptoms through a population where there is no infectious agent responsible for contagion. MPI differs from other types of collective delusions by involving physical symptoms. According to Balaratnasingam and Janca, “Mass hysteria is to date a poorly understood condition. There is little certainty as to its etiology.” Qualities of MPI outbreaks often include:
- symptoms that have no plausible organic basis;
- transient and mild symptoms;
- symptoms of rapid onset and recovery;
- occurrence in separate group;
- the presence of extraordinary anxiety;
- symptoms that are spread by sight, sound or oral communication;
- a gap that goes down the age scale, starting with older or higher-status people;
- a preponderance of female participants.
Examples of Mass Hysteria In History
The first studied cases linked to epidemic hysteria are the dancing manias of the Middle Ages, notably the dance of Saint John and tarantism. These were believed to be associated with spirit possession or the bite of the tarantula. Those with dance mania danced in large groups, sometimes for weeks. The dancing was sometimes accompanied by stripping, screaming, making obscene gestures, or even (apparently) laughing or crying to death. Dancing mania was widespread in Europe.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, cases of motor hysteria were common in convents. The young ladies who made up these convents were generally forced there by the family. Once accepted, they took a vow of chastity and poverty. Their lives were highly regulated and often marked by strict disciplinary measures. Nuns would exhibit a variety of behaviors, usually attributed to demonic possession. They often used foul language and exhibited suggestive behaviors. The nuns of a convent mew regularly like cats. Priests were often called upon to exorcise demons.
18th to 21st centuries
In the factories
Epidemics of IPD occurred in factories after the Industrial Revolution in England, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia as well as in the United States and Singapore.
WH Phoon, Ministry of Labour, Singapore, presents a case study of six IPD outbreaks in Singapore factories between 1973 and 1978. They were characterized by:
(1) hysterical fits of screaming and general violence, where tranquilizers were ineffective.
(2) trance states, where a worker would claim to be speaking under the influence of a spirit or jinn (or genie).
(3) frightened spells: some workers complained of a fear unprecedented, or feeling cold, numb or dizzy. Outbreaks would subside in about a week. Often a bomoh (doctor) was called in to perform a ritual exorcism. This technique was not effective and sometimes seemed to exacerbate the IPD outbreak. Women and Malays have been disproportionately affected.
The “June bug” epidemic is particularly noteworthy: In June 1962, a peak month in factory production, 62 workers at a sewing factory in a southern U.S. textile town [a] presented symptoms such as severe nausea and rashes. on the skin. Most outbreaks occurred during the first shift, when four-fifths of the workers were women. Of 62 total outbreaks, 59 were women, some of whom thought they had been bitten by insects from a shipment of tissue, so entomologists and others were called in to discover the pathogen, but none was not found. Kerchoff coordinated the interview of affected and unaffected workers at the plant and summarizes his findings:
- Strain – those affected were more likely to work frequent overtime and provide the majority of the family income. Many were married with children.
- Those affected tended to deny their difficulties. Kerchoff posits that these were “less likely to cope successfully under tense conditions”.
- The results seemed consistent with a model of social contagion. The groups of people affected tended to have strong social ties.
Kerchoff also links the rapid rate of contagion to the seemingly reasonableness of the insect infestation theory and the credibility given to it in the accompanying news reports.
Stahl and Lebedun describe a mass sociogenic disease outbreak in a midwestern U.S. college town data center in 1974. Ten of 39 workers smelling unconfirmed “mystery gas” were rushed to hospital with symptoms of dizziness, fainting, nausea and vomiting. They report that most of the workers were young women, either studying for their husbands or supplementing the family income. Those affected were found to have high levels of job dissatisfaction. People with close social ties tended to have similar reactions to the supposed gas, which only one unaffected woman reported smelling. No gas was detected during subsequent testing of the data center.
Schools in Berry, Alabama and Miami Beach in 1974
Mass hysteria affected schools in Berry, Alabama and Miami Beach in 1974, the first episode taking the form of recurring pruritus, and the last initially sparking fears of poison gas (it traced back to a student popular who was sick with a virus).
Alleged disease in a province of Kosovo from March to June 1990
Thousands of people were affected by the spread of an alleged disease in a province of Kosovo from March to June 1990, exclusively affecting ethnic Albanians, most of whom were young teenagers. A wide variety of symptoms occurred, including headache, dizziness, difficulty breathing, weakness/adynamia, burning sensations, cramps, chest/chest pain, dry mouth, and nausea. After the illness subsided, a bipartisan federal commission released a document, offering the explanation for the psychogenic illness. Radovanovic of the Department of Community Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine for Behavioral Sciences in Safat, Kuwait, reports:
This document did not satisfy either of the two ethnic groups. Many Albanian doctors believed what they witnessed was an unusual outbreak of poisoning. The majority of their Serbian colleagues also ignored any explanation in terms of psychopathology. They suggested that the incident was faked with the intention of showing the Serbs in a bad light, but failed due to poor organization.
Rodovanovic expects this reported case of mass sociogenic illness to have been precipitated by the volatile and culturally tense situation demonstrated in the province.
Tanganyika laughing epidemic of 1962
The Tanganyika laughing epidemic of 1962 was an outbreak of laughing attacks believed to have occurred in or near the village of Kanshasa on the west coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania, eventually affecting 14 different schools and more than 1000 people.
October 7, 1965, at a girls’ school in Blackburn, England
On the morning of Thursday, October 7, 1965, at a girls’ school in Blackburn, England, several girls complained of dizziness. Some fainted. Within hours, 85 girls from the school were rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital after fainting. Symptoms included fainting, moaning, chattering teeth, hyperpnea and tetany. Moss and McEvedy released their analysis of the event about a year later. Their conclusions follow. Note that their conclusion about the above-average extraversion and neuroticism of those affected is not necessarily typical of MPI:
- The clinical and biological results were essentially negative.
- Investigations by public health authorities found no evidence of food or air pollution.
- The epidemiology of the epidemic was studied using questionnaires administered to the entire school population. It has been established that the epidemics began in 14-year-olds, but the highest incidence has shifted to younger age groups.
- Using Eysenck’s Personality Inventory, it was found that, across all age groups, the average E [extraversion] and N [neuroticism] scores of affected people were higher than those of unaffected people.
- Younger girls were found to be more susceptible, but the disturbances were more severe and lasted longer in older girls.
- It was considered that the outbreak was hysterical, that a previous outbreak of polio had made the population emotionally vulnerable, and that a three-hour parade, producing 20 fainting spells the day before the first outbreak, had been the specific trigger.
- The data collected was found to be inconsistent with organic theories and with the compromise theory of an organic core.
Belgium in June 1999
Another possible case occurred in Belgium in June 1999, when people, mainly school children, fell ill after drinking Coca-Cola. Ultimately, scientists were divided on the scale of the outbreak, whether it fully explained the many different symptoms and the scale to which the sociogenic disease affected those involved.
Le Roy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York, United States
A possible outbreak of mass psychogenic illness occurred at Le Roy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York, United States, in which several students began to experience symptoms similar to Tourette. Various medical professionals ruled out factors such as Gardasil, drinking water contamination, illegal drugs, carbon monoxide poisoning, and various other potential environmental or infectious causes, before diagnosing the students with a disorder. conversion and mass psychogenic illness.
Around 2009, a wave of apparent poisonings in girls’ schools across Afghanistan
Beginning around 2009, a wave of apparent poisonings in girls’ schools across Afghanistan began to be reported; symptoms included dizziness, fainting and vomiting. The United Nations, World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force investigated the incidents over several years, but never found evidence of toxins or poisoning in the hundreds of blood, urine and water samples they tested. The conclusion of the investigators was that the girls suffered from a mass psychogenic illness.
August 2019, schoolgirls at the Ketereh National Secondary School (SMK Ketereh) in Kelantan, Malaysia
In August 2019, the BBC reported that schoolgirls at the Ketereh National Secondary School (SMK Ketereh) in Kelantan, Malaysia, started screaming, with some claiming to have seen “a face of pure evil”. Dr Simon Wessely of King’s College Hospital in London suggested it was a form of ‘collective behaviour’. Robert Bartholomew, an American medical sociologist and author, said, “It is no coincidence that Kelantan, the most religiously conservative of all Malay states, is also the most epidemic-prone. This view is supported by Afiq Noor, an academic, who argues that stricter implementation of Islamic law in schools in states such as Kelantan is linked to outbreaks. He suggested that the screaming outbreak was caused by the restricted environment. In Malaysian culture, burial sites and trees are common places for supernatural tales of dead infant spirits (toyol), vampiric ghosts (pontianak), and vengeful female spirits (penanggalan). Authorities responded to the outbreak in Kelantan by cutting down trees around the school.
Epidemics of mass psychogenic illness have been reported in Catholic convents and monasteries in Mexico, Italy, and France, in schools in Kosovo, and even among cheerleaders in a rural town in North Carolina.
Schools across Nepal
Episodes of mass hysteria have been seen frequently in schools across Nepal, even leading to the temporary closure of schools. A unique phenomenon of ‘recurrent outbreak of mass hysteria’ was reported at a school in Pyuthan district, western Nepal in 2018. After a 9-year-old schoolgirl developed bouts of crying and screaming , soon other children from the same school were also affected, resulting in 47 students affected (37 female, 10 male) on the same day. Since 2016, similar episodes of mass psychogenic illness have occurred every year at the same school. It is believed to be a unique case of recurring mass hysteria.
Terrorism and biological warfare
Bartholomew and Wessely anticipate the “concern that after a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack, public health facilities may be quickly overwhelmed with anxious and not just medical and psychological victims.” In addition, the early symptoms of people affected by IPD are difficult to differentiate from those actually exposed to the dangerous agent.
The first Iraqi missile to hit Israel during the Persian Gulf War is believed to contain chemical or biological weapons. Although this was not the case, 40% of people near the explosion reported respiratory problems.
Right after the 2001 anthrax attacks during the first two weeks of October 2001, there were over 2,300 false anthrax alarms in the United States. Some reported physical symptoms of what they believed to be anthrax.
Also in 2001, a man sprayed what later turned out to be window cleaner at a Maryland subway station. Thirty-five people were treated for nausea, headaches and sore throats.
In 2017, some employees of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba reported symptoms (dubbed “Havana Syndrome”) attributed to “sonic attacks”. The following year, some US government employees in China reported similar symptoms. Some scientists have suggested that the alleged symptoms were psychogenic in nature.
Children from recent refugee families
There have been reports of refugee children in Sweden falling into coma-like states upon hearing that their families would be deported. The condition, known as resignation syndrome (Swedish: uppgivenhetsyndrom), is thought to only exist among the refugee population in the Scandinavian country, where it has been prevalent since the turn of the 21st century. Commentators state that “a degree of psychological contagion” is inherent in the disease, whereby young friends and relatives of the afflicted person may also suffer.
In a 130-page report on the disease, commissioned by the government and published in 2006, a team of psychologists, political scientists and sociologists hypothesized that it was a culture-bound syndrome, a psychological disease endemic to a specific society.
This phenomenon was then called into question, with children testifying to having been forced by their parents to act in a certain way in order to increase their chances of obtaining a residence permit. As evidenced by medical records, medical professionals were aware of this scam and witnessed parents who actively refused help for their children, but remained silent. Later, Sveriges Television, Sweden’s national public television channel, was harshly criticized by investigative journalist Janne Josefsson for not uncovering the truth.
Sources: PinterPandai, Study, Verywell Mind, Medical News Today
Photo credit: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887.
Iconographic Collections. Keywords: Georges Gilles de la Tourette; Salpetriere (Hospital); Edouard Brissaud; Pierre André A. Brouillet; J. Babinski; Fulgence Raymond; Jean Martin Charcot.