Mass hysteria / Mass Psychogenic hysteria/conversion disorder is a condition in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress. Kerckhoff and Back suggest that there are collective human behaviors which produce different kinds of activities and phenomena. These include crowd or mob behaviors, panics, movements, crazes and fads. These types of behaviors often occur under stress or when the ordered reality of a culture or group is disrupted.
In medicine, the term is used to describe the spontaneous manifestation (production of chemicals in the body) of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person.
A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment, sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.
The History of Hysteria. Mass hysteria illnesses have been found throughout history Hippocrates, circa 400 BC introduced the term “hysteria” meaning illness caused by a wondering womb. Symptoms included convulsions, twitching, muscle spasms, abdominal cramps ,nausea, and headaches in unmarried Greek women. Symptoms typically spread quickly to other women in the vicinity of the victim . In Psychology,until 1980 hysteria was a formally studied psychological disorder that could be found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Today, when we say someone is hysterical, we mean that they are frenzied, frantic, or out of control.
India has had a history of mass hysteria. Here’s a list of some bizarre instances, some of which still remain unexplained.
Monkey Man or Kala Bandar
In 2001, the capital was struck by the horror of ‘Monkey Man’. People reported seeing a half man-half monkey like creature roaming the streets of New Delhi, attacking people. Some described ‘Monkey Man’ as wearing a helmet, others claimed he had metal claws.While the so-called “attacks” didn’t kill anyone, a pregnant woman, who panicked and fell off the stairs, died. She was sleeping on her terrace in East Delhi when she heard her neighbours screaming, and ran out of fear of the ‘Monkey Man’.
The ‘Sweet Water’ of Mahim Creek
In 2006, Mumbai residents claimed that the water of the highly contaminated Mahim creek, had suddenly turned sweet. Hundreds flocked to Mahim beach to taste the water, many began attributing the ‘miracle’ to a Haji Maqdoom Baba, The sudden rush of people sent the authorities into a tizzy, who feared an outbreak of disease from people consuming the dirty creek water. People take dips in the sweet-tasting water in Mumbai.
Bani School in Jammu
Mass hysteria among students of a government school in the mountainous area of Bani in Jammu’s Kathua district caused concern among the parents as well as the authorities. About 35 students, mostly girls, started screaming and rolling on the ground without any apparent reason after the morning prayers causing panic among the teachers. This incident happened on two consecutive days, June13 and 14, 2019. Sources, however, claimed that two students, who initially showed baffling behaviour, were academically poor and a class test was scheduled the next day when they reported to start behaving strangely. The medical team examined the childen but found no health problem with them.
Symptoms and causes of Mass hysteria include:
* Sudden onset with dramatic symptoms, rapid spread and rapid recovery.
* From 60 to 90% of victims of psychogenic illnesses have “historically been young females”
* Victims often know each other or are in the same friendship circles. Observing a friend become sick is the best predictor of the development of symptoms.
* A triggering stimulant. An auditory or visual triggering stimulus is generally found.
* Apparent transmission by sight, sound or both. Seeing a victim collapse is a predictor of others getting the symptoms
* Negative laboratory or physical findings confirming a specific organic cause or pathogen. The illnesses are “real,” however, there is an absence of any chemical toxin or biological pathogen.
* Underlying psychological or physical stress. Individual stress from an unfamiliar environment or performance anxiety; social stress including war, rapid technological change, or epidemic diseases; and school and work related stress including the beginning of the school year are common.
* Boredom, or perceived boredom. Worker boredom with routine tasks has been found in many cases of illness.
* Unrelated symptoms among a group of individuals affected: hyperventilation or fainting ,dizziness, nausea and vomiting, headaches, chest pains, chills, eye or mouth stinging, flushing, hives, convulsions, stinging or paralysis in extremities, swollen and bloody lips, skin disorders, asthma attacks, and disorientation in time/space.
Mass psychogenic illnesses can be a great concern for students, parents,teachers and others working with students,if happen in school. The reason is the potential for long term effects resulting from this type of event. If no physical or chemical etiology for the illness can be found and if episodes reoccur, the illness remains a mystery. This unsolved mystery can lead to anxiety, fear, spread of rumor and even possible litigation.
When confronted with this type of illness, calm responsive leadership from staff is essential for monitoring the situation. Protocols for contacting emergency personnel need to be implemented immediately, and as soon as possible those stricken should be separated from those showing no symptoms of the illness. A precautionary evacuation of the area and relocation of members of the group to comfortable areas can help avoid panic reactions. It is important that staff be available, both on site where the illness occurred and in the area where the group is relocated so that communication can be maintained and rumors can be held to a minimum. As the number of those stricken increases, facilities for transporting those who are feeling ill will be severely stretched. If possible, those only moderately affected should be transported to the health care facility using buses or other forms of public conveyance which are quickly available. Those experiencing the most acute symptoms will require the attention of counselors/psychologists.
In the days following the incident, questions will remain as to what caused of the illness, what safeguards are there to prevent a reoccurrence, and what assurances are there that the facility is now safe. Answers to these questions when no physical cause is identified, as is the case in a mass psychogenic illness, must focus on building confidence that adequate should be taken. Inquiries can be expected from students, parents, and the media. The ease with which individuals with questions can receive a reply from an appropriate school spokesperson can affect the level of trust perceived in the answers given. It is appropriate that at the end of the professional investigation of the incident, a report be issued to all interested parties. Because indeed the symptoms experienced by the victims were real, it is important to acknowledge that. Especially in cases of mass psychogenic illness, a coordinated staff response is essential for minimizing the disruption to the student community.
No doubt, such cases are rare but can happen anytime in school, hence there is a great need of staff training for coping with emergency situations. Staff training should emphasize the importance of good communication during emergency situations and the importance of controlling rumors with accurate information Familiarity with the phenomena of mass psychogenic illness and recognition of the symptomology and characteristics of this type of event should be discussed in training so that staff can anticipate those occasions when additional vigilance is appropriate. Adequate training and a plan for action in response to mass psychogenic events can help in their overall resolution.
(The author is lecturer in psychology at GGHSS Mubarak Mandi)