Suzanne O'Sullivan

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In Sweden, hundreds of children lie unconscious for months or even years in their homes or hospitals. Full neurologic evaluation, including MRIs, EEGs, and other studies reveal no abnormalities.  None of these children are Swedish. They are immigrants from the Near East or former Soviet republics, whose families are seeking permanent asylum in Sweden. If asylum is granted, the children gradually recover. Neurologists have named this mysterious illness “resignation syndrome” and classified it a functional neurological disorder.  

Suzanne O’Sullivan, an Irish neurologist, set out in 2018 to study children suffering from resignation syndrome, a project that led her to investigate other outbreaks of mysterious illness around the world. In The Sleeping Beauties, O’Sullivan discusses many such disorders, ranging from grisi siknis in Nicaragua (convulsions and visual hallucinations) to a form of sleeping sickness in Kazakhstan. These disorders have several features in common: absence of findings on medical and psychiatric tests, contagiousness (i.e. they seem to spread rapidly among populations in close contact), and significant morbidity.  

Dr. O’Sullivan notes “there is a disconnect between the way mass psychogenic disease is defined and discussed by the small number of experts who study it and how it is understood outside those circles.” (p. 257) The public finds reports of such illnesses difficult to believe. In the United States, we tend to believe that such illness, if it exists at all, occurs only in “backward” cultures and not in our enlightened society. On the contrary, the author presents “Havana syndrome,” as a case of mass psychogenic disease that first appeared among American diplomats in the Cuban capital in 2016. No consistent brain abnormalities have ever been found, and extensive study has ruled-out the possibility of a sonic weapon.  Dr. O’Sullivan believes that Havana syndrome is very likely a functional neurologic disorder occurring against “a background of chronic tensions within a close-knit community.” (p. 257)

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Is It All in Your Head?

O'Sullivan, Suzanne

Last Updated: Mar-17-2017
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist in the British National Health Service. She has a particular interest in psychosomatic illnesses, and in this book, she covers what she has learned about them. O’Sullivan provides these learnings mostly from clinical experience rather than as findings from empiric studies on psychosomatic illnesses.   

Each chapter is built around one or more case studies that focus on particular psychosomatic illnesses, and include historical perspectives and various theories that might explain why they occur.  

The cases O’Sullivan uses presented themselves as seizures, paralysis, urinary tract troubles, generalized and localized pain, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, blindness, and dystonia. Patients sometimes came to her with pre-determined diagnoses such as epilepsy, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and fibromyalgia among others. O’Sullivan is emphatic that psychosomatic illnesses are not just any presentation of illness that cannot be linked to a pathological basis. Psychosomatic illnesses arise from “the subconscious mind [that] reproduces symptoms that make sense to the individual’s understanding of how a disease behaves.” (p. 83) Illness presentations that are feigned or self-inflicted (e.g., Munchausen’s syndrome) are not psychosomatic illnesses in O’Sullivan’s view.

Each chapter delves into some particular aspect of psychosomatic illness relevant to the case study. These include history (e.g., role of the uterus in hysteria), mechanisms at work (e.g., conversion reactions, dissociation), triggers (e.g., stress, loss, personality traits), factors (e.g., previous illness experiences), illness behavior disorders (e.g., associating illness to benign physical sensations), and the higher incidence seen among females. Though O’Sullivan teases out various characteristics and workings of psychosomatic illnesses, she admits that they remain vexing to clinicians because, “almost any function of the body can be affected in almost any way.” (p. 170)

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