Yesterday, ‘mass hysteria’ closed a school in Barnsley. According to an article in The Times, 30 or so pupils began feeling ill after watching a widely used biology video, and as other pupils heard about the malady, the effect spread.
The school officials eventually gathered everyone together in the school hall suspecting a gas leak, and paramedics advised the school should be closed.
The original class were taken to hospital, but no signs of physical illness have been reported and no gas leak has been found. The episode has been put down to ‘mass hysteria’.
Mass hysteria is typically called ‘mass sociogenic illness’ in the research literature and was the subject of a fascinating 2002 article by sociologist Robert Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessley.
This article was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and charts the history of mass sociogenic illness from the middle ages to the present day.
The authors also note some of the tell-tale signs that distinguish sociogenic illness from genuine mass poisoning, and suggest there are two main types:
“Wessely (1987) identifies two types of mass sociogenic illness ‚Äî ‘mass anxiety hysteria’ and ‘mass motor hysteria’. The former is of shorter duration, typically one day, and involves sudden, extreme anxiety following the perception of a false threat. The second category is typified by the slow accumulation of pent-up stress, is confined to an intolerable social setting and is characterised by dissociation, histrionics and alterations in psychomotor activity (e.g. shaking, twitching, contractures), usually persisting for weeks or months.”
Batholomew has written a completely enthralling book on this subject called Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975) which comes highly recommended both as a guide to this medical curiosity, and as a tour through the more unusual aspects of our social psychology.