The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness
Genre: Longform journalism
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: May-23-2022
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)