Sociologist explains that one type of mass hysteria is behind cases in upstate New York

A recent set of odd medical cases in one New York town has prompted news sources to look for explanations. One sociologist suggests the high school students are experiencing one type of mass hysteria:

Most doctors and experts believe that the students are suffering from mass sociogenic illness, also known as mass hysteria. In these cases, psychological symptoms manifest as physical conditions.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of several books on mass hysteria including The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, explained to Discovery News that “there are two main types of contagious conversion disorder. The most common in Western countries is triggered by extreme, sudden stress; usually a bad smell. Symptoms typically include dizziness, headaches, fainting and over-breathing, and resolve within about a day.”

In contrast, Bartholomew said, “The LeRoy students are experiencing the rarer, more serious type affecting muscle motor function and commonly involves twitching, shaking, facial tics, difficulty communicating and trance states. Symptoms appear slowly over weeks or months under exposure to longstanding stress, and typically take weeks or months to subside.”

Mass hysteria cases are more common than people realize and have been reported all over the world for centuries.

Read the rest of the story for four more interesting stories of mass hysteria. These sorts of stories pop up every once in a while: a few people claim to be ill from smelling something but authorities can’t find any issue.

I’ve seen Bartholomew quoted in a few news stories about this mystery illness. I would be interested to hear how he thinks you can defuse this situation; how do you stop mass hysteria? Is it best to focus on reducing the stress of the people experiencing the illness or is it better to split up the group of those experiencing the illness to try to limit the “mass” part of the condition?

Also, do we have any studies of what takes place within a community that is experiencing this as opposed to studying the situations afterward? What is it like for the other students and their families in this high school?

Third, what kind of stress sets this off?

Fourth, is there something about the social networks between those who are ill that matter or the particular institutional setting that people are in (i.e., close quarters for long hours)?

3 thoughts on “Sociologist explains that one type of mass hysteria is behind cases in upstate New York

  1. Hi Brian,

    1. How do you stop mass hysteria? Credible reassurance from authority figures. Unfortunately, the New York State Health Department has created a ‘monster’ by withholding their diagnosis publicly but telling people not to worry. This has created even more anxiety, public distrust and suspicion. These actions ensure that this case is going to persist for months to come, possibly years. They have only themselves to blame.

    2. You want to limit the stress while spliting up the group.

    3. The type of stress involved is significant, longterm interpersonal stress, typically of a sexual nature, e.g., schoolgirl rivalries and jealouses of a chronic, ongoing nature. I am unaware of the specific stress identified by the neurologist in the Leroy case but it is likely to be of the above nature.

    4. The institutional setting is significant as schools (as well as factories) are closed environmnets where people find themselves but often do not want to be there and in most instances, they cannot simply walk away. They are stuck there along with the perceived harmful/toxic agent.

    You ask: “do we have any studies of what takes place within a community that is experiencing this as opposed to studying the situations afterward? What is it like for the other students and their families in this high school?”

    Typically parents in the communities involved form advocacy groups (formal or informal) that keep the issue alive; often neighbor is pitted against neighbor as competing folk theories fly. Unfortunately, the NYS Health Department has lost their authority and credibility in the eyes of many residents.

    Best wishes,

    Robert Bartholomew
    Department of History and Social Sciences
    Botany Downs Secondary College
    575 Chapel Road
    Auckland, New Zealand


    • Robert,

      Thanks for answering my questions. So has the NYS Health Department withheld this info because they aren’t confident about explaining what has happened? Did they make other mistakes as well?



      • Hi Brian,

        Sorry for the delay in responding: I just saw your reply today.

        The New York State Health Department withheld the information because they were fearful of the public criticism they would receive by reporting that the episode was an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness (aka, “mass hysteria”). In delaying this announcement by hiding behind NY State privacy laws, they eroded their credibility when the diagnosis eventually leaked out (which was inevitable). They should have been straight with the public from the onset. They were confident it was mass hysteria when the battery of tests came back negative.

        I am not aware of other mistakes they made, but this episode is a case study in medical mishandling. Let us hope if history repeats in New York State, the Health Department has learned its lesson: be honest with the public. Remember – they work for us and we pay their salaries.


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