Mass hysteria in Uttarakhand school underscores need for better mental healthcare

Mass hysteria in Uttarakhand school underscores need for better mental healthcare

Mass hysteria in Uttarakhand school underscores need for better mental healthcare

(Photo: Flick/kAz)

While villagers rely on rituals to ‘cure’ the delirium, health and education departments conduct check-ups and counselling to solve the puzzle, while such incidents need expert attention and medical interventions.


Dehradun, Uttarakhand: It was just another day of studies at the government junior high school in Uttarakhand’s Raikholi when things took a turn for the worse. Six Class 8 girls and two boys threw a tantrum, with some banging their heads on the floor, and the rest screaming, shivering and wailing in a semi-conscious state.

Though a video of the July 26 incident surfaced on Twitter, it was dismissed by many as a routine phenomenon. The focus was more on healing the children with prayers and age-old rituals, than medical interventions to help them recover and studies to find out the reasons that triggered it.    

Psychiatrists termed the incident at Raikholi, which comes under Bageshwar district, a case of mass hysteria or psychological disorder. Dr Nandkishore, a well-known psychiatrist in the state, told 101Reporters that trauma, stress, anxiety or something deeply entrenched in the mind may trigger such behaviour. Social mores, the surrounding environments and difficult geographical conditions could lead to mass hysteria.

Dr Nandkishore says, “In these hill areas, lack of education, awareness and healthcare facilities impact social development. Girls are more vulnerable in such an atmosphere. Some rituals at a religious gathering and beliefs also enforce the idea of supernatural personification or being in a trance. This could leave an impact on children who often see such practices. Such cases of mass hysteria are seen mainly in adolescent girls. Sometimes it may be an adaptive way for the girls to express their anxiety or depression.”

Hem Bahuguna, a psychiatric social worker associated with Almora Medical College, explained how customs and beliefs that talk of being possessed by a deity or spirit could leave an imprint on the subconscious mind of children. "Many such incidents did not get attention or medical help as people associate this with their belief or social prestige. The role of psychologists and psychiatrists is also neglected by government." he said.  

When such incidents occurred a few years ago, they were linked to stomach ailments. “The government of the day then initiated a deworming programme!" because policymakers linked the phenomenon with the physical health and nutrition of the students

Sociologist Prem Bahukhandi said that it is a mental health issue which is mostly seen among underprivileged children. “It is high time the schools ran programmes on mental health, But it is disappointing that the recent incident of Bageshwar School failed to trigger a debate on mental health issues,” he added.    

Shortage of psychiatrists  

A majority of the posts of psychiatrists remain vacant in healthcare units across the state. An RTI query by the Social Development for Communities Foundation of Dehradun last year revealed that 24 of the total 28 posts of psychiatrists remained vacant in the Department of Medical, Health & Family Welfare of the Uttarakhand government. Only two districts of the total 13 — Dehradun and Nainital — have psychiatrists occupying four scheduled posts.  

In 2019, a State Mental Health Authority was set up in Uttarakhand where 8 members should been nominated. But the authority is working with only two members. After Bageshwar incident applications are invited for the remaining posts. Similarly, the state mental health institute is working with only two psychiatrists while two posts are vacant.

Even otherwise, there is a severe shortage of psychiatrists and mental health service providers across the county, with only 0.75 psychiatrists present for every one lakh people. 


Rituals take precedence

While the hill residents see mass hysteria-like cases as a periodic occurrence that can be cured through prayers and rituals, the district administration tried to project that the issue has been resolved and all is well. Meanwhile, another similar incident was reported on August 6 from an inter-college in Bageshwar district where five girls started behaving abnormally. While such cases of mass hysteria should be examined by an expert psychiatrist, it is mostly handled through the lens of superstitions or basic medical treatment.

Remembering the earlier incident, Headmistress Nirmala Verma said, one of the girls threw 'tantrums', which was repeated by the rest of the affected girls and boys. The next day saw a repeat of the incident, in the same fashion. “On one occasion, the condition of the students deteriorated right in the presence of officials, resulting in a check-up and counselling session,” she said. Despite the medical help offered by the visiting officials from the health and education departments for two to three days, the condition of one of the girls deteriorated. She had to be admitted to the district hospital.

Bageshwar Additional Chief Medical Officer Dr Harish Pokhariya, however, claimed the condition of the girl was stable after counselling.

Harish Ram, the father of one of the affected girls, told 101Reporters: “My daughter is fine when at home, but turns hysterical at school. Since she tested normal at the hospital, we brought her home. She attended school too, and seems to be stable now.” He added that the school had witnessed a similar incident almost three years ago.

Journalist Sushmita Thapa, who covered the incident for a news outlet, said the district authorities were hesitant to talk about what happened, while locals thought it was better to hold a puja at the school to ward off evil spirits. “In fact, a puja was conducted in the school, which shows that superstitions rule the roost here. Rooms in the school are dingy and dark, with leaking roofs. This itself can negatively impact the children,” Thapa felt.

Meanwhile, Dr R Rajesh Kumar, the Secretary-in-charge of the Department of Medical Health & Family Welfare, told 101Reporters that he had already told the chief medical officer of Bageshwar district and had taken note of the incident. “Instructions have been issued for counselling of the children forthwith. If experts are not available locally, they would be brought from Almora or Haldwani,” he added.

While mass hysteria is not a hill-specific incident  — Kathua in Jammu, Nepal, Vietnam and European countries have seen them before — it should be addressed by implementing a well-thought-out mental health programme.

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