Mass hysteria Vs Mass anxiety?

Posted: 14 May 2010 by reanxyz in post

This article is from BT 13-05-2010
Here is the link http://www.bt.com.bn/print/118722
and here is the article (perhaps our bagbaga here can comment on this one. ehe)
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Mass hysteria: product of ‘jinn’ or anxiety?

Dr Frank Fanselow, head of the Sociology-Anthropology programme at UBD. Picture: BT/Rachel Thien

Quratul-Ain Bandial
BRUNEI-MUARA

Thursday, May 13, 2010
IN THE past month, recent incidents of mass hysteria among students at two all-girls secondary schools in the Sultanate created a wave of panic among many parents, educators and members of the community, frightened of what was causing the phenomenon.

On April 19, more than 15 students were struck by the mass hysteria at Sufri Bolkiah Secondary School (SMSB) in Tutong followed by another incident on May 1 at Pengiran Anak Puteri Hjh Masna Secondary School (SM PAP Masna), Berakas, in which approximately 15 students were involved.

Some of the students affected by the phenomenon claimed to have been possessed by spirits, or jinn, displaying histrionic symptoms such as screaming, shaking and crying.

Religious teachers from Institut Tahfiz Al Quran Sultan Hj Hassanal Bolkiah and Islamic medical practitioners from Darusysyifa’ Warrafahah were called in to SMSB and SM PAP Masna, respectively, to calm the students by reciting verses of the Quran.

In an interview with The Brunei Times, Dr Frank Fanselow, head of the Sociology-Anthropology programme at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD), said that hysteria is a condition which manifests physical symptoms but no medical cause can be attributed to it.

“People started thinking if there are no natural causes, there might be some supernatural causes. So some cultures began to think along the lines of possession. In Malay culture there is strong belief in jinn and hantu, which incorporates pre-Islamic notions of animism and spirits.”

Dr Fanselow, whose work has centred on socio-anthropology of the Muslim world, explained that there are many differing opinions on jinn and the role they play in the temporal sphere.

“From a religious point of view, there are many different interpretations. Some Islamic scholars will say ‘yes, there are jinn, (the mass hysteria) may be caused by jinn’. Other modernist religious scholars say ‘yes, there are jinn but they live in a parallel world that does not have any impact on us’.

“People will use different ways to explain particular kinds of symptoms. In Brunei it will be explained, by many people but not all, by hantu and jinn. People will try to make sense of it in their own way.”

Scientifically known as conversion disorder, mass hysteria is the product of deep-seated anxiety and is often an unconscious response to very disciplined, controlled environments, said Dr Fanselow.

The response is a form of resistance in environments where people are otherwise not able to articulate dissent. The resistance, the UBD lecturer said, articulates itself in ways that people cannot be held responsible because they are being used as vehicle for somebody or something else.

Dr Fanselow said such reactions are rooted in anxiety for which there may be a myriad of explanations such as stress due to the pressure associated with examinations, or in other cases, reaction to school policies or the school management. He cited instances in Malaysia and Taiwan, where psychologists and sociologists investigated mass hysteria cases, and found that increased levels of anxiety and fear in the students was generally caused by some changes in that particular institution.

“I’m not saying that these people are making it up. I sincerely believe that those involved believe in what is happening to them. This happens at the unconscious level. Because when you are possessed, you can do things or say things and you are not held responsible for them because it’s somebody else that possesses you a third party.”

While outbreaks of mass hysteria are not limited to women, historically it has been prevalent among the female sex.

Dr Fanselow suggested that in many societies women are subjected to more rigorous control than men and there is a perception that women need to be protected, which often means limiting their freedom.

“In modern times, it (mass hysteria) is usually found in two kinds of institutions factories and schools… They are both institutions that are very hierarchical… Secondly, they are institutions that require conformity and a high level of discipline. Any form of non-conformity or disobedience is not tolerated and usually punished very quickly.”

Dr Fanselow said that because Brunei is a small, tight knit society, there is a strong emphasis on conformity.

“This phenomenon is spread easier in environments where there is conformity and people are similar, because they easily identify with each other… But in a place where people are very different from one another it’s less likely to spread,” he explained.

Conversion disorder is something that occurs in times of rapid social change, or life-cycle change such as the transition from child to adult.

During the 19th century and the realisation of the industrial revolution, harsh working conditions and weak labour unions led to mass outbreaks of hysteria among factory workers in England, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Symptoms included convulsions, abnormal movements and neurological complaints.

Similarly, examples can be found from Malaysia and Singapore in the 1970s when an epidemic of hysteria spread out over several years would affect female assembly line workers. This was also a time of rapid socio-cultural change as women were moving from the country to the cities, altering village life permanently.

“This phenomenon is not limited to Bruneian or Malay culture, it has happened in many cultures and many historical periods,” said Dr Fanselow.

“It affects people whose lives are fragmented in some way, who are caught up in conflicts. The context in which they live may be very rigid, very disciplined but at the same time there are cultural conflicts, social change, and different parts of their life are drifting apart and it’s hard for them to deal with the breaking-up of the world in which they live.”

The anthropologist related that adolescents are at a point in their life where there is a lot of conflict, which causes much anxiety.

“In schools, they may be expected to behave in certain ways, but outside school it may be completely different. It’s different worlds, different expectations,” he commented.

To deal with outbreaks of hysteria, it is important to understand it within the context of power and hierarchical relationships, he said.

“Some evidence suggests bringing in more authority whether it is school authorities or religious authorities you may actually make it worse because the whole thing is a form of asserting one’s self,” he said. “By bringing in more authority you are creating more scope for resistance.”

Dr Fanselow said that from anecdotal evidence, the most effective measure is to separate the victims of hysteria from the rest of their group. “It becomes like an infection. One way to contain something that is contagious is to isolate it.”

However, Dr Fanselow stated that separating the victims would only be an immediate measure, another way to look at it would be to implement a “psycho-social measure”. He said that sociologists and psychiatrists would investigate the case to understand the root cause of the anxiety which is causing the hysteria.

“Definitely, by surrounding it with secrecy, that makes it worse. Rational discussion and investigation (is needed). If one understands the causes better, then one can better control it. By surrounding it with mystery and secrecy, you are just creating more of an environment where it can actually spread.”

When contacted by The Brunei Times regarding this story, the Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment. Officials from Sufri Bolkiah Secondary School and Pengiran Anak Puteri Hjh Masna Secondary School declined to comment.

The Brunei Times

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