What is mass psychogenic illness?

If a group of people present real symptoms in the absence of a specific disease or cause, it is called mass psychogenic disease.

Last update: 19 March, 2022

Serious events that threaten the well-being of an entire population can trigger diverse symptoms in the most vulnerable people. When this happens and there is no organic cause that justifies it, it is possible that it is mass psychogenic illness, a condition still unknown and poorly understood. What exactly? How to deal with it?

This is within the functional neurological disorders. And although its symptoms are mild and transitory, they can sometimes compromise the quality of life of those who suffer from it. Here we explain what is known about it.

Main characteristics of mass psychogenic illness

The definition of this condition is somewhat broad and subjective, as related terms used regularly in psychiatry tend to be different. For example, the most similar entity collected within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, for its acronym in English) is the “hysterical neurosis”.

According to a Mayo Clinic publication, this is part of the DSM-V and fits into functional neurological disorders. This is a set of neurological symptoms that cannot be explained by an “organic” disease. That is, despite medical efforts to find a cause, a psychiatric problem is pointed out as the origin of the symptoms.

This does not mean that the clinical manifestations are not real. This is a phenomenon that is still poorly understood., but it is most likely a consequence of the anatomical and functional organization of the nervous system in the face of an intense stressor stimulus. In fact, telling a patient in crisis that his symptoms are “part of his imagination” could make the problem worse.

In the specific case of mass psychogenic illness, the functional disorder is not suffered by one person, but by many. Any adverse environmental event — news, for example — is capable of triggering symptoms in predisposed people. This is what is most often associated with mass hysteria, often underdiagnosed.

Mass psychogenic illness can result from stressors that are believed to compromise health.


Triggers of mass psychogenic illness

There is no single trigger that explains the appearance of this condition. What all events share in common is that There must be a stressful factor that threatens the stability, quality of life or well-being of those affected.

According to a series of case reports published in 2018, these moments are usually “rumors or assumptions of vital threats.” In the modern society of developed countries, the fear of terrorist attacks, biological weapons or war conflicts could cause episodes of mass hysteria.

Diagnosis

For health professionals, dealing with one or several cases of mass psychogenic illness can become a challenge. Psychiatrists use the diagnostic criteria contained in the DSM-V for such effects, depending on the characteristics of your symptoms. This encompasses the following:

  • Motor skills and senses are affected.
  • Despite multiple investigations, no neurological or organic origin can be found.
  • There is an association with problems that affect the daily development of the person in a social or work environment, for example.

The most common manifestations include headache (headache), dizziness, and weakness. However, if people feel that they have been exposed to a certain agent, the symptoms could be more specific. It must occur in several patients in a similar period of time, similar to an epidemiological outbreak.

Treatment of mass psychogenic illness

Because symptoms are often long-lasting and severe, many patients go to the emergency room or doctor’s office seeking care. As usual, the treating doctor will indicate a series of studies to assess that everything is in order. Mass psychogenic illness will only be considered as a diagnosis of exclusion.

The professional will indicate the probable reasons for the symptoms, always clarifying that it is not a mental or imaginary problem, since this could be counterproductive. If the patient understands the origin of the symptoms, they usually subside when the stressor stimulus disappears.

Unfortunately, understanding the whole problem can be difficult, which also makes its treatment complex. If the cases are recurrent, psychiatric support is requested to face the disease with the best tools.

The use of medication is not usually necessary, unless there is an underlying illness—such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder—and the symptoms are severe.

In general, the doctor refers to psychiatry so that the person finds the optimal resources to face mass psychogenic illness.


What to remember?

Mass psychogenic illness is a fairly complex condition that it is still misunderstood by many health professionals. It is not easy or possible to diagnose it in a short time, so the process can be extended to find a solution based on understanding and psychiatric therapy, in severe cases.

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