From SMITHSONIANMAG.COM, 6th March, 2017
The schools fell like dominoes across Portugal in May 2006, one after another calling upon government officials with reports of dozens, then hundreds of students struck with rashes, dizziness and difficulty breathing, just as year-end exams approached. Was it a mysterious allergic reaction, a chemical spill, a virus? After digging deeper, medical practitioners came up with a new culprit: “Strawberries With Sugar,” or in Portuguese, “Morangos com Acucar.” No, not the food—the vector for this disease was a popular teen soap opera with a saccharine title. Just before the outbreak in the real schools, a similar, life-threatening illness had plagued the teenaged characters in their fictional school.
The Portuguese students weren’t suffering from a virus or allergies: they’d come down with mass psychogenic illness.
In a psychogenic illness, a psychological trigger—rather than a biological or environmental one—causes actual physical symptoms. As sociologist Robert Bartholomew explains: “Mass hysteria is the placebo effect in reverse. People can literally make themselves ill from nothing more than an idea.” Bartholomew has studied mass hysteria extensively, and written about outbreaks around the world. “Parents and students fight the diagnosis as no one wants to accept that their kids were ‘hysterical,’” he said by email. “In reality, it’s a collective stress reaction and found in normal people.”