Well Being

Strange TODAY Show Story Reminds Us That “Hysteria” Is Still A Thing

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Yesterday on the TODAY Show, a group of 12 teenage girls from New York discussed the sudden, bizarre onset of a Tourette's-esque disorder that's resulted, for no clear reason, in all of them displaying tics, twitches, and uncontrollable outbursts. And while the epidemic itself sounds strange and interesting (there's a RadioLab about a similar outbreak), it's the clinical diagnosis by a doctor on the show that made me pause–Conversion disorder…or mass hysteria. Really? With it's gendered, pejorative, and non-scientific roots, that's still a word that's being used medically?

The ailment that's befallen the girls who appeared on the TODAY show may be slightly beyond the reaches of an easy medical conclusion–it's a pretty strange set of behaviors, and all environmental causes have been rules out–but is hysteria really the right word to apply to a group of a dozen teenagers, who are already prone to being talked about and viewed in diminutive terms? Doesn't that sort of downplay the severity of the experience for the people suffering?

Hysteria, which is usually used to describe a frantic, irrational, or uncontrolled state of mind (you know, like the way women get) has a pretty loaded background. Stemming from both the Greek and Latin words for “uterus,” hysteria is essentially what medical professionals used to diagnose crazy women with, when their wombs were to blame for their insanity or irrational thought processes. In the past, it's been used to describe everything from psychotic episodes to mild mania.

And, it seems, it's still being widely applied to situations of extreme group behavior and unexplained oddities. Like the one of the twitching girls in New York. And to be honest, I didn't realize it was still something I could be diagnosed with, if I were to present with womanly symptoms, like uncontrollable tics or a frenzied state of mind.

The meaning has shifted away from the uterus-specific roots, but the implications are still there. Linking fragility of mind to the female reproductive organs still sits a little uncomfortably with me–and I don't think I'm alone. And while it's true that medicine seems to always be the last to know when a word has simply become too incorrect or too loaded to use–many medical professionals were using or continue to use “transvestite” to describe those in the transgender community–hysteria is definitely one that's long past its prime.

Regardless of what's found to be the cause of the girls' behavior–there are plenty of junior detectives on TODAY Show's Facebook page ranging from vaccines to mold toxicity to other rare neurological disorders, and I'm fairly sure none of them are correct–the final, gendered, inconclusive, umbrella-term, diagnosis is what's bothersome. Maybe it's time to finally get that particular diagnosis off the books, or at least, re-name it to something less specific to my womanly parts.

Here's the video of the TODAY Show segment. What do you think?

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Image: The TODAY Show