Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis

Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis

Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis

Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis

Excerpt

The spontaneous outbreak of illness among a group of workers is a dramatic and distressing event. Of primary concern, of course, is the immediate treatment and recovery of the affected workers and the detection and elimination of the illness source. To the extent that the cause can be readily identified and understood, anxiety surrounding the event diminishes. Once the affected individuals have a rational explanation for what happened to them, they can begin to realistically evaluate their symptoms, not only in terms of their immediate significance, but also in terms of their longrange implications.

Unfortunately not all incidents of mass illness in work settings are so easily resolved. In some cases a physical or chemical cause for the illness may not be obvious. Recurrent episodes may occur long after the initiating cause has been removed or the expressed symptoms may be too nonspecific and transient to permit diagnosis. Under these conditions the illness remains a mystery and the workplace becomes a breeding ground for anxiety, rumor, confusion, and fear. Economic pressures to resume normal operations are counteracted by genuine concerns that the environment is still pathogenic. Having exhausted all possible physical explanations for the illness episode, investigators may turn to a psychological interpretation of the outbreak, explaining it in terms of mass hysteria or mass anxiety. This conclusion is always a tenuous one, being based primarily on the absence of physical evidence rather than the presence of a clearly defined set of precipitating psychosocial conditions. This ambivalence is understandable given the long and controversial history of the mind-body issue in general, and the concept of "hysteria" in particular. Despite these semantic and theoretical pitfalls, the fact remains that the workplace is as much a psychosocial environment as it is a physical one. The effects of psychogenic stressors may be . . .

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