Strange TODAY Show Story Reminds Us That “Hysteria” Is Still A Thing

Yesterday on the TODAY Show, a group of 12 teenage girls from New York discussed the sudden, bizarre onset of a Tourette’s-esque disorder that’s resulted, for no clear reason, in all of them displaying tics, twitches, and uncontrollable outbursts. And while the epidemic itself sounds strange and interesting (there’s a RadioLab about a similar outbreak), it’s the clinical diagnosis by a doctor on the show that made me pause–Conversion disorder…or mass hysteria. Really? With it’s gendered, pejorative, and non-scientific roots, that’s still a word that’s being used medically?

The ailment that’s befallen the girls who appeared on the TODAY show may be slightly beyond the reaches of an easy medical conclusion–it’s a pretty strange set of behaviors, and all environmental causes have been rules out–but is hysteria really the right word to apply to a group of a dozen teenagers, who are already prone to being talked about and viewed in diminutive terms? Doesn’t that sort of downplay the severity of the experience for the people suffering?

Hysteria, which is usually used to describe a frantic, irrational, or uncontrolled state of mind (you know, like the way women get) has a pretty loaded background. Stemming from both the Greek and Latin words for “uterus,” hysteria is essentially what medical professionals used to diagnose crazy women with, when their wombs were to blame for their insanity or irrational thought processes. In the past, it’s been used to describe everything from psychotic episodes to mild mania.

And, it seems, it’s still being widely applied to situations of extreme group behavior and unexplained oddities. Like the one of the twitching girls in New York. And to be honest, I didn’t realize it was still something I could be diagnosed with, if I were to present with womanly symptoms, like uncontrollable tics or a frenzied state of mind.

The meaning has shifted away from the uterus-specific roots, but the implications are still there. Linking fragility of mind to the female reproductive organs still sits a little uncomfortably with me–and I don’t think I’m alone. And while it’s true that medicine seems to always be the last to know when a word has simply become too incorrect or too loaded to use–many medical professionals were using or continue to use “transvestite” to describe those in the transgender community–hysteria is definitely one that’s long past its prime.

Regardless of what’s found to be the cause of the girls’ behavior–there are plenty of junior detectives on TODAY Show’s Facebook page ranging from vaccines to mold toxicity to other rare neurological disorders, and I’m fairly sure none of them are correct–the final, gendered, inconclusive, umbrella-term, diagnosis is what’s bothersome. Maybe it’s time to finally get that particular diagnosis off the books, or at least, re-name it to something less specific to my womanly parts.

Here’s the video of the TODAY Show segment. What do you think?

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Image: The TODAY Show

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    • Grace

      I think the mass hysteria thing is an effort to blow off whatever is causing these girls’ problems. It reminds me of the first cases of Lyme that showed up in Connecticut – that was blamed on mass hysteria, as well, until some tenacious researchers finally proved that it was caused by a previously unknown bacteria.

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Agreed! That’s the trouble with this kind of blanket, not-taken-very-serious diagnosis.

    • Lisa

      I think that as long as we’re talking about polarizing, incorrect medical terms, I should point out that “transgendered” is not a word and has offensive undertones:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joanne-herman/transgender-or-transgende_b_492922.html

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Oh, you’re totally right. That was just a typo, sorry! Corrected.

      • Lisa

        Thank you — sorry if that reply was a little curt. I actually used to make the same mistake (not as a typo, but because I thought that “transgendered” was the correct word to use) and that HuffPo article was a real eye-opener.

        I am actually not shocked that a healthcare professional would suggest that the girls were suffering from hysteria because, obviously, our uteruses make us crazy and unbalanced. That’s why we women should not be allowed to drive, vote, really do anything that involves making big decisions. Our reproductive systems just throw everything in our poor little heads all out of whack. (sarcasm)

    • J Happs

      My daughter was just diagnosed with this today. We live in Kentucky. Hers is mostly vocal, but affects her face, neck and shoulder muscles.
      There have been no neurological tests done so far, our doctor wants to try medication, follow up in a week and see how it goes from there. My daughter is 15, and has been placed on home bound school because of this issue. I hope there is some answer somewhere that can help these girls. Watching my daughter go thru this is horrible. By the end of the day she is exhausted, in pain and so frustrated she cries herself to sleep.

    • Jen Dorner

      It sure looks like PANDAS to me. Symptoms of PANDAS can occur long after the strep infection is gone. I’m surprised that little has been said regarding possible PANDAS.

    • J Happs

      The more I think about the way our doctor acted when we went in for this, the more upset I get. He walked into the room telling the RNP what was happening, and he hadn’t even laid eyes on her.

      His exact words to us were “I just saw this on the Today show last week.”

      Why is it that there are no tests being done, but all of these diagnosis being given?

      How can they call it mass hysteria when no one else at my child’s school has it, and she has never met these girls or seen it on TV? We don’t even watch the news.

      Blame it on Gardisil, but my child has never had the shot?

      Say it is localized, when I have heard that it has been seen in Cali, New York, and here in Kentucky?

      There is something not right with this. I do not know what it is. And I wish someone could put me in touch with one of these parents.

      If any of these girls parents is reading this, please, let me know it is you, I will give my email address…I just want to know what-if anything- they are telling you, and to attempt to compare symptoms so I know a bit more about what I am dealing with.