When girls go mad

Abstract: Teenage girls display signs of delirium. No, seriously…

Ask any parent of a teenage girl what the experience is like and they will shake their head, appear for a second as if they’re about to burst into tears, and then, from somewhere deep inside, bravely dig up a tired smile and say something like, “we do our best”. For such parents, science may now be able to offer a reassuring hand on their shoulder. Sort of.

There’s something particularly challenging in raising a teenage girl. It’s hard to describe without wanting to reach for a double scotch, a carton of cigarettes and then your cellphone to call your therapist. ‘Testing’ is a word most parents of teenage girls would use to describe their offspring during this particular period in their lives. It’s not a coincidence then that their eventual blossoming into young adulthood is normally marked by a father buying a Harley Davidson and a mother a course of Botox. Middle-aged crisis? No, Post-teenage-daughter-celebration more likely.

Now take the issues of a typical teenage girl and multiply them. Last month, stories made the news in the US about 15 teenage girls in a school in upstate New York who were all displaying symptoms similar to Tourette’s Syndrome – a condition marked by involuntary spasms, tics, seizures and vocal outbursts. It’s a rare condition in one person, so in a group, you’d think it highly unlikely. Think again.

Should a group of people fall ill, invariably there’s a physical cause, such as food poisoning, a gas leak, or some other form of contamination; yet the case above seemed to have no physical cause. More interestingly it’s one of a number of examples of groups of people who have all suddenly displayed physical symptoms of illness without any physical origin.

See if you can spot the link: In 2002 10 teenage girls in a small rural high school in North Carolina started fainting and having seizures. The school buildings were inspected but nothing was found to explain what happened. In the beginning of 2007, 600 teenage girls in a Catholic boarding school in Mexico started collapsing, displaying signs of fever, and claiming feelings of nausea. Tests could find no physical cause.

But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more: Later that same year, at least eight teenage girls in a high school in Virginia in the US started displaying twitching symptoms. Again, no physical cause was found. In 2008 in Tanzania, about 20 teenage schoolgirls started fainting in class, while others who witnessed the event, ran around the school screaming and crying; and in 2010 two all-girls high schools in Brunei reported incidents of students fainting and acting deliriously.

So what’s the link? Yes, you spotted it: ‘teenage girls’. It’s something that has baffled, and fascinated, psychiatrists. Yes, that’s right – psychiatrists; because without any physical cause, all these symptoms are psychological in nature. It’s called ‘conversion disorder’, and is characterised by displays of physical disorders such as blindness, numbness, paralysis, and disruptions to speech patterns; but without any associated physical or neurological cause.

The term ‘conversion’ applies because it is believed the physical symptoms are a conversion of deep psychological problems such as intense stress. It’s important to note that sufferers of conversion disorder are not making up the symptoms – they really do exist.

Conversion disorder is quite rare, but not as rare as its occurrence on a mass scale – something called mass psychogenic hysteria. However, rare though they may be, there is something that is common amongst all of these events: they generally occur only amongst teenage girls.

No-one seems to have a definitive explanation for it. The Mayo Clinic, a US-based not-for-profit research group that specialises in difficult cases and advanced medical investigation, concludes that teenage girls are indeed more prone to conversion disorder, but has no answer as to why it can happen to large groups of teenage girls, and all at the same time.

Science then has confirmed that teenage girls are prone to bursts of highly irrational behaviour – which should reassure puzzled parents – but struggles to provide those parents with an explanation as to why.

I have a suggestion: Teenage boys are like border collies – they are easily distracted by a bouncing ball, and as such can convert any teenage issues into something physical. It’s called sport. Teenage girls, on the other hand, are less inclined to play sport. Without the liberty of such physical distractions they tend to focus on themselves and each other, and so any teenage angst that they have simply takes hold in their minds, simmering and festering until it’s released in a burst of emotional – and associated physical – disparity.

Furthermore, girls mature emotionally much quicker than boys – it’s one of the reasons why boys don’t understand girls, and girls complain that boys just don’t ‘get’ them. So, in the absence of the successful communication of their emotions with boys, they are more likely to develop an emotional “collective” amongst themselves.

But it’s not the resultant occasional outburst of ‘conversion disorder’ that should concern us. It’s something far more problematic and closer to home. It’s called ‘Idols’, and it’s coming, yet again, to the small screen in our living rooms. Because without teenage girls screaming and fainting, inexplicably, at the very sight of someone trying to sing on a stage, the programme wouldn’t even get off the ground.

Originally published in The Sunday Tribune, 12 February 2012