Last fall, a number of teenage girls at LeRoy High School in upstate New York began exhibiting Tourette’s-like symptoms. The symptoms all began very suddenly. Students reporting waking up and suddenly experiencing both physical and verbal tics. Since the initial report, there are now a total of thirteen to fourteen students who have reported experiencing the same symptoms. All students affected are female, with the exception of one male. One of the victims posted a video on YouTube, showing her symptoms. You can view that video here.
Predictably, theories attempting to explain the cause of this mysterious outbreak are surfacing from experts in a variety of fields. Even Erin Brockovitch has launched an investigation. Brockovitch’s current theory is that the damage has been caused by a train derailment that dumped cyanide and an industrial solvent in the area in 1970. LeRoy High School, on the other hand, announced in a press release that it has hired its own environmental experts, and no abnormalities around the school have been uncovered. On Saturday, Brockovitch and her team were turned away from the area, as the school indicated the investigation was interfering with the school’s daily activities. Kim Cox, the Superintendent, explained,
…we have been working closely for months with numerous medical professionals, the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. All of these agencies and professionals from these agencies have assured us that our school is safe. There is no evidence of an environmental or infectious cause.
The doctors treated the affected students are in agreement that environmental factors can be ruled out. In an interview with MSNBC, Dr. Gregory Young of the New York Department of Health agreed. Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, a neurologist at the DENT Neurologic Institute in Amherst, New York, has treated several of the girls. His diagnosis is not Tourette’s, but rather a conversion disorder, known more commonly as mass hysteria.
According to Mechtler, mass hysteria is a condition that, at the present time, cannot be fully explained. Doctors believe that the condition is caused by a physical manifestation of psychological symptoms. Symptoms associated with mass hysteria include seizures, tingling, numbness, paralysis, and inability to speak. For a reason that cannot be explained, women seem to suffer from mass hysteria much more frequently than men.
According to the Huffington Post, this is not at all the first instance of mass hysteria ever to occur. In fact, most of us are probably more familiar with the phenomenon than we thought. The Salem Witch trials began after several girls began experiencing mysterious outbursts. Again in Salem, the vast majority of people affected were women. The significant gender imbalance is a clue that doctors have used to distinguish between poisoning and hysteria.
A similar outbreak was reported in 1789 in a Northern English textile factory. The Huffington Post reports that the outbreak began with one woman experiencing convulsions after another woman hid a mouse in the first woman’s dress. A rumor then spread that the convulsions had instead been caused by an imported bag of cotton. Before long, twenty-one women, two young girls, and one man, all experienced violent convulsions as well. The factory was forced to shut down to put a stop to the epidemic. Those treating the patients determined that the victims were “merely nervous.” Rather than writing prescriptions for medication, victims were instead encouraged to attend a dance. The next day, victims were remarkably better and able to return to work.
Similar outbreaks have also been noted in a North Carolina school in 2004 and in schools in Taiwan in 2009 and 2010.
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