September 24, 2008

Role Social Relations Play in Mass Hysteria

By Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi

HAVE schools taken the right approach to outbreaks of mass hysteria? Experts tell SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI how to identify the root causes and tackle them.

THE father of a 14-year-old student at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Tanjung Lumpur in Kuantan doesn't know what to make of the recent outbreak of mass hysteria there. He is worried about his daughter, who occasionally relapses into screaming fits.

"She may be possessed by evil spirits," he fears. "Will she be able to recover fully?"

Bomohs and faith healers have been called in to exorcise "evil spirits" for the recurring mass hysteria at schools in Pahang, Sarawak and Kelantan. But psychiatrists, academics and Islamic scholars agree that that the victims should be counselled instead.

In recent weeks, the Kuantan school, SMK Bekenu in Kuching and SM Sultanah Zainab II in Kota Baru have been hit by bouts of mass hysteria. Unlike previous incidents, these three schools are neither religious nor boarding schools.

Economic anthropologist Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim says the mass hysteria could have stemmed from emotional distress, including school and family issues. But she is concerned that the outbreak has "moved" from strict boarding and religious schools to normal secondary schools.

Wazir, who published Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam in 1992 - which includes a case study of mass hysteria at a religious school in Langgar, near Alor Setar, Kedah in 1980 - says the same age group appears to be affected in these latest incidents.

Mass hysteria should be examined closely by socio-psychiatrists and the victims should be clinically treated, she says. Socio- psychiatrists, Wazir explains, would be able to analyse the problem and propose practical solutions.

"We must know why it happens and address it accordingly," she says, adding that it is better to prevent a mass outbreak than to treat the victims afterwards.

The former director of the Women's Development Research Centre (Kanita) at Universiti Sains Malaysia says one of the main reasons for secondary schoolgirls becoming emotionally disturbed is the drastic change between home and school environments.

Malay parents tend to shower their daughters with excessive attention in a sheltered and protected home environment, which has produced "anak manja" or pampered teenage girls, Wazir says.

In secondary school, they are confronted with rigid discipline, having to stand up to naughty boys and overbearing teachers, which leads to an identity crisis, she explains. School "proves to be a `cruel' place compared to their happy homes, and thus the inner self- conflict begins".

Their Chinese peers appear to be more emotionally resilient because their parents do not dote on daughters as Malays do, says Wazir. This socio-cultural background explains why Chinese girls can withstand the regimented routines and regulations at their vernacular secondary schools.

The same pattern of separation affected rural girls plucked from their kampungs to work in factories in Kedah and Penang in the 1970s and 1980s. Their dissatisfaction and depression became severe and mass hysteria broke out, but employers were quick to respond by isolating the victims and taking them to clinics for treatment.

Equally important today is the diagnosis of the victims' mental health by psychiatrists. "If they are not diagnosed and treated, they could be emotionally retarded and scarred for the rest of their life," Wazir says. "It would affect their adolescent years, relationships and parenthood."

In extreme cases, the cycle is repeated with their own children.

The Education Ministry should have immediately engaged psychiatrists to treat the victims and analyse the cause for the recent outbreaks at the two schools, says Asean Federation of Psychiatry and Mental Health president Professor Dr Hussain Habil.

"Their lackadaisical attitude towards mass hysteria mirrors the lack of awareness of mental health."

Husain says mass hysteria is a crowd behaviour affecting those who are already vulnerable due to emotional stress, troubled teen relationships, complications at home or a host of other personal issues unique to the individual.

When a victim starts screaming, others react similarly, even when they have different personal problems, just as in a crowd in which people clap and cheer their idols on stage.

Hussain says that girls are more susceptible to mass hysteria than boys of the same age because they repress their emotions: "Boys will usually resort to negative physical activities like addiction and aggression."

Sports and co-curricular activities, viewed as non-essential by many parents and teachers more concerned with academic results, are vital stress management tools for schoolchildren.

Hussain says it is important for educationists to create constructive emotional outlets for teenagers through co-curricular activities - sports, outdoor activities and arts - to cultivate healthy emotional growth.

Counselling teachers at schools are trained to handle welfare and career issues rather than emotional stress, he notes. "It is time for the Education Ministry to have counsellors who are also trained to recognise mental conditions. They can refer the students to a medical practitioner before the problem becomes severe."

Moreover, says Pahang Mufti Datuk Abdul Rahman Osman, turning to a bomoh and not a medical practitioner to calm hysterical students may transgress Islam.

The Islamic method of spiritual healing uses verses from the Quran, hadiths and the prophets' prayers, but as Rahman points out, many bomohs employ unIslamic healing by calling on jin to assist them.

"Those who think that supernatural powers can weed out evil spirits could fall into syirik or consenting to polytheism," he warns.

Rahman says in the case of SMK Tanjung Lumpur, the state Religious Department has advised the school to be selective when employing bomohs. "We do not want schoolchildren and the community to receive the wrong signals that superstitions and bomohs with special powers are accepted in Islam."

(c) 2008 New Straits Times. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.