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)?