Psychogenic illness

Psychogenic illness is a set of symptoms of illness in a group of persons when there is no evidence of an organic basis for the illness and no identifiable environmental cause.

Some problems of unexplained epidemics of illnesses are thought to have been cases of psychogenic illness rather than organic illness. For example, in June 1962, workers at a garment factory began complaining of nausea, pain, disorientation, and muscular weakness; some actually collapsed at their jobs or lost consciousness.

Rumors spread rapidly that the illness was caused by “some kind of insect” that had infested one of the shipments of cloth from overseas, and the owners began making efforts to eradicate the bug. No bug was ever discovered, however, and experts eventually concluded that the “June Bug incident” had been caused by mass delusion (Kerckhoff & Back, 1968).

Researchers can never definitively determine which cases of widespread illness are socially produced rather than biologically produced, but one study of work groups identified 23 separate cases that involved large numbers of individuals afflicted with “physical symptoms … in the absence of an identifiable pathogen” (Colligan & Murphy, 1982, p. 35). More than 1200 people were affected by these outbreaks, with most reporting symptoms that included headaches, nausea, dizziness, and weakness. Many were women working in relatively repetitive, routinized jobs, and the illness often spread through friendship networks.

Similarly, studies of pupils in school often conclude that many epidemics, such as outbreaks of fainting or nausea, are caused by hysterical contagion (Bartholomew, 1997; Lee et al., 1996). Some experts believe that many of the illnesses and medical complaints that are blamed on the presence of irritants in office buildings and schools—the so-called sick building syndrome—are actually psychogenic illnesses (Murphy, 2006).

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