Is Mexico facing a new kind of epidemic? Since September, episodes of mass fainting have affected 227 middle and high school students in six schools in four different states. The Mexican authorities have decided to open an investigation to determine the origin of the phenomenon. This could also help to temper psychosis and calm the anger of parents.
Sudden and inexplicable fainting
The mysterious phenomenon began on September 23 at the high school in the municipality of Tapachula in the province of Chiapas, in the south of the country. According to Business Insider Mexico, 12-year-old Esmeralda is leaving the toilet at her establishment when she suddenly loses consciousness. Her best friend Diala, who was with her, fainted seconds after her. Two discomforts that will not remain isolated. In the same hour, ten high school students collapsed without explanation. Later that day, 22 Tapachula students reported vomiting and headaches. Symptoms, which a posteriori, are common to all these fainting. To explain the event, the food served in the canteen is studied... without success. Toxicological tests are carried out on the victims. They will all come out negative. Authorities eventually concluded that the students simply suffered a panic attack.
The case could have ended there, but two weeks later, 68 teenagers lost consciousness in the village of Bochil, more than 200 kilometres from Tapachula. Here too, tests are done on students: only four are positive for cocaine. Four days later, the phenomenon strikes Tapachula again. This time, 18 students are victims of an inexplicable malaise. Over the next two months, four high schools in other states were affected by mass fainting.
A mass hysteria transmitted via... Internet
Months pass and the situation returns to normal. However, the phenomenon remains unexplained by the authorities and the concern of parents remains. The local press seized on the case and several explanations flourished. For the events taking place in the high school of Tapachula, the Mexican newspaper Milenio evokes a gas leak that would have been detected in the establishment. The Mexican branch of the daily El País, speaks of water contaminated by "an unknown substance" in the region of Chiapas. Theories that will be swept away by the investigation. Food poisoning and Covid-19 are for a time mentioned as the causes of this phenomenon, before being refuted.
A new scenario could, however, explain the phenomenon. Mexican authorities discovered that there was a link between certain groups of teenagers: WhatsApp loops. In an interview with Slate, Dr. Robert Bartholomew, professor of psychology, suggested that this would be the first case of mass hysteria spread online. This rare phenomenon occurs when a person exhibits unexpected behavior – such as fainting – and other individuals nearby unintentionally reproduce the symptoms. According to the psychologist, the victims of the first psychosis talked about it on social networks which spread it to other cities. "Before, for that to happen, you had to be in the same room. But social media has become an extension of our senses. I think we're on the path to a bigger, more global epidemic," Bartholomew said. For the moment the theory has not been validated by the Mexican authorities.