It’s okay to admit that mass hysteria is real
For some reason, this week’s Newsweek was really great, with an interesting story about how sports wives and girlfriends are an easy target for fan rage and Andrew Sullivan’s pretty good article on the contraception debacle, where he rehashes my theory that Obama set it up this way. (However, he still insists that abortion is different, even though anti-choicers have shown their true colors with the attacks on contraception.) But one article I found really fascinating was this brave one by Nancy Hass decrying the intense media indulgence of parental delusions attached to a bout of mass hysteria in LeRoy, New York. For those who haven’t heard, a bunch of teenage girls have been overcome with a series of uncontrollable tics, much like Tourette’s syndrome, and—this is critical to understanding what’s going on—it’s spreading. It’s an open and shut case of mass hysteria: localized, no physical cause, contagious, and concentrated in teenage girls. While mass hysteria can occur in other groups, it most commonly occurs in teenage girls, probably because the stresses unique to being a teenage girl create the perfect situation for this. But the parents don’t want to hear it. They want the answer to be roughly “anything else”. And, according to Hass, a number of media sources are giving them a sympathetic audience to make their understandable but still deluded claims that it’s something other than mass hysteria.
There’s three major issues with indulging these delusions, beyond just the obvious problem of indulging delusions.
1) It contributes to the stigma around mental illness. What comes across loud in clear in the parents’ reactions is that they can’t accept the diagnosis of mental illness, because in their minds, mental illness is not “real” illness. Which is a common misconception, and I’m not especially mad at the parents for having it. They probably haven’t really been educated on this or had experiences that would help fix their prejudices about mental illness. Where I am mad is at the media that treats their prejudice like it’s a legitimate opinion that needs airing. I’m mad at self-styled environmentalists who are eager to use these girls’ distress to raise awareness of fracking, which while certainly a bad thing, is just not the cause of this problem. The parents would probably be more willing to listen to the actual experts if there weren’t so many other people—environmentalists, journalists—that also seem like authorities confusing the issue.
Mental illness is real illness. To say that these girls are hysterical doesn’t mean that their suffering isn’t real, or that they don’t need help. Insisting that it has to be something other than a mental illness issue simply means creating obstacles to care. It’s as if someone has a sinus infection and you insist that it’s actually a twisted ankle. You’re not going to help them by putting a bandage on their ankle. They need antibiotics. Mental illness is the same; treating it like it’s physical means you’re not treating it at all.
2) It makes concerns about fracking look like woo. Fracking is a legtimately serious concern. Sober, pro-science environmentalists agree that it’s a real concern, and that there’s real dangers to it. But when you attach false dangers to it, attributing problems to fracking that obviously have nothing to do with fracking, you open up your movement—for good reason!—to accusations that you’re anti-science and no better than anti-vaccination idiots. Which could be used to discredit the whole thing. Which makes me wonder, as I have in the past, if Erin Brockovich is secretly working for the other side. After all, she sent an aide to test the soil in response to this mass hysteria, which ends up bringing attention to the anti-science bent of the environmentalist movement, and makes everyone involved look like an idiot.
3) It’s sexist. There’s two ways to interpret the fact that mass hysterias tend to take off amongst teenage girls and young women (see: Salem witch trials, multiple personality disorder) more than anyone else. You could go with the sexist explanation, that women are inherently unstable and hysterical. Or you could go with the more nuanced, anti-sexist explanation, which is that young women are under a specific set of stresses that make this sort of thing happen. From Hass’s article, it’s clear that the experts in this situation are opening door #2, pointing out how hard the lives of many victims are and suggesting they cracked under pressure. I would point out that the transition from childhood to adulthood is particularly difficult for women. You go from being an adored child who lives in a sea of mother-love to being, frankly, a second class citizen whose sexuality is considered the most important and often only relevant aspect of your personality. You’re expected to start stifling yourself, accept being talked down to (often by men who know less than you do about a subject), and to constantly monitor your body to make sure you’re striking that perfect and impossible balance between sexually alluring and “slutty”. This is especially difficult if you’re a teenager, with all the attendant awkwardness and raging hormones that implies. That’s the baseline of stress for basically all young women. Add to that any more stress, and no wonder teenage girls crack.
By insisting that the symptoms must be physical and not mental, the parents and the media and everyone else involved in making this a “mystery” instead of an open-and-shut case of mass hysteria are basically engaging in a cover-up. They’re ignoring the patriarchy and the damage it does to young women, probably in no small part because they’re not really interested in actually challenging the social structures that caused this problem. But in doing so, as Hass suggests, they’re just making it worse. They’re signaling to the girls—to be clear, this is mostly subconscious—that the continued ticcing is the path to returning to that state of childhood, where you’re an object of love and concern, instead of returning to your new life as a sex object. Hysterical ticcing is basically the only way for teenage girls end up getting media attention that isn’t about sex, after all, and that kind of prejudice goes all the way down to the ground. What needs to happen is that teenage girls need love and support and, yes, attention for things other than what they do with their vaginas or if they’re acting all crazy. Again, to be clear, I doubt very much that the girls want this. Their distress is real. Pointing out that the cause is mass hysteria—and that patriachy plays a role in mass hysteria—doesn’t mean downplaying their distress. It just gives us a clear view of how to fix this and how to prevent it in the future.