In one of recent years’ most interesting medical anomalies, at least a dozen high school students suddenly and without explanation began experiencing unusual changes to their bodies and behavior. Violent tics, unusual facial spasms, and vocal outbursts were among the Tourette’s-like symptoms emerging amongst the student population of LeRoy High School in upstate New York.
It all began in August of last year, when Katie Krautwurst began contorting uncomfortably, seemingly out of nowhere. Not long after, her friend and fellow cheerleader, Thera Sanchez, started displaying the same symptoms. In practically no time at all, upwards of 18 students from the same high school had come down with the mysterious disease. While the majority of those afflicted were girls, this evidence of medical uncertainties surfaced in one male student and one female teacher (aged 36).
For months, the jury was out on what sparked this phenomenon, and in the middle of this uncertainty, hypotheses came from just about every corner of the scientific community; and as the curiosity grew around this small town of less than 8,000, numerous media outlets were quick to follow. And since August, residents have waded in fear that something was in the water, something was in the soil, or that something had suddenly taken over.
But recent news has just reported that at least two of the afflicted teens are showing not just improvements in their condition, but are actually better. Dr. Jennifer McVigh, of the Dent Neurologic Institute, who has been treating some of the LeRoy girls, explains that two girls have been cured and others are likely on the way to the same recovery. “There are two of the girls that are all better and there are three more that are just there,” stated McVigh.
McVigh believes that this great turn of events issued from her treatment of conversion disorder—a psychological disorder which affects a person’s mind and subsequent behavior. Other researchers and journalists are now leaning towards the possibility that the situation in LeRoy stemmed from a psychosocial phenomenon that caused the afflicted to (unknowingly) react physically to unconscious stimuli.
In an in depth article provided by the New York Times, many of those stricken in LeRoy have more than their fair share of trials and tribulations in their young lives. Many had come from broken homes and less than ideal financial situations—a huge factor that can lead to stress-induced tics and outbreaks. What is more, many of these students were friends, fellow cheerleaders, and classmates, creating a tight-knit group for which “transmission” could act quickly.
As the media reported on the events in the small town and the town’s fame continued to rise, many eyes were now set on LeRoy, adding fuel to the flame. In a sense showing that with enough positive reinforcement, eventually the desired outcome will appear. But many were not content to hear that it was hysteria that had plagued their town and their children. Nobody wants to be accused of acting it up for the cameras. And despite the negative stigma attached to the “mass hysteria” (think: Salem witch trials), this is an actual treatable disorder. According to Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic, hysteria outbreaks necessitate three elements: theorists, susceptible patients, and an understanding environment—and LeRoy had these in spades.
Simon Wessely, chairman of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College in London, wrote in 1995: “Things only go wrong when the nature of an outbreak is not recognized, and a fruitless and expensive search for toxins, fumes and gases begins. Anxiety, far from being reduced, increases. It is only then that long-term psychological problems may develop.” Samples taken from the town’s water supply, along with dirt from the school track, have come up as nothing. It is true that with the right amount of scare and hubbub a catalyst for fear can emerge; and in the midst of this fear, anything can happen.
This episode in LeRoy, New York, is sure to be a mystery for some time; but as news of the recovery of those distressed, we can all be happy that things are starting to get better.
Photo Credit: nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/harrypottersworld/images/details/OB0068.jpg