Mass psychogenic illness and the social network: is it changing the pattern of outbreaks?



In October 2011, several adolescent girls at a high school in the town of Leroy, New York (pop. 7641), spontaneously developed facial tics, muscle twitching and garbled speech. By early January 2012, it was revealed that the New York State Health Department had diagnosed the students (by now, 14 women and 1 man) with conversion disorder. News of the ‘mass hysteria’ diagnosis has been vigorously challenged by parents who have formed their own advocacy group. Several victims have appeared on national television to denounce the diagnosis; celebrities have tweeted support for the students and expressed scepticism over its psychogenic origin, while some physicians have publicly suggested alternative explanations. This case has dominated headlines in the USA and continues to generate anxiety and controversy. A common folk theory attributes the symptoms to exposure from a nearby toxic dump, prompting environmental activist Erin Brockovich to challenge the diagnosis and open an independent investigation to determine the ‘real’ cause.

The advice in handling episodes has until now not changed since that given during the latter Middle Ages to quell outbreaks of conversion disorder in European nunneries and repeated over the centuries since: offer reassurance, separate the victims and keep them out of the school environment until the symptoms disappear. Given the proliferation of the Internet and social media networks, this latter recommendation may prove problematic. Local priests, who were inevitably summoned to exorcize the ‘demons’, faced a daunting task given the widespread belief in witchcraft, but they were fortunate in one regard: they did not have to contend with mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook.

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