On September 23, 2022, a 12-year-old girl named Esmeralda walked out of the girls’ bathroom at a middle school in Tapachula, Mexico. Then he passed out. Her friend, Diala, came out after her and passed out in turn. Over the next two months, similar incidents were reported at at least six high schools in four Mexican states hundreds of kilometers apart, according to Insider. In all, 227 children, mostly girls, passed out, and no one knows for sure why.
In the next hour, another nine girls and one boy from Federal Public School No. 1 spontaneously collapsed on the floor in their classrooms, in the bathroom or in the school yard. Another 22 students reported other unusual symptoms such as vomiting and headaches.
Esmeralda’s mother, Gladys, received a text from her niece, Esmeralda’s cousin, telling her to come to school urgently. Gladys found her daughter lying on the cement in the school’s main courtyard. He could not speak or stand up. Diala and several other students were also lying on the floor.
“Esmeralda passed out and started convulsing on the floor,” Diala said later. “I didn’t expect to pass out myself, but I found myself on the ground. I couldn’t breathe very well, [respirația] she was very fast and her eyes were red.”
Several students reported smelling smoke — Esmeralda said the smell reminded her of burning leaves in the mountains — leading people to suspect it was marijuana.
The tests that were done came back negative. Several students reported seeing a dust in the bathroom that was a distinct mustard-like color.
School administrators later discovered a bag of sandwiches, but a toxicology report revealed no drugs.
At the hospital, the doctors concluded that Esmeralda and the other patients had suffered a panic attack. By the next morning, all the children seemed to have recovered, and classes resumed the following week.
Two weeks later, on October 7, at a secondary school in Bochil, at least 68 children fainted, vomited or became disoriented. Dozens of students arrived at the hospital.
One of the affected girls told a Gatopardo magazine reporter that she felt like her mouth was full of ants. This time, tests found traces of cocaine in four of the affected students.
Four days later, on October 11, another second incident occurred at Federal School No. 1 in Tapachula: this time, 18 students, mainly girls, fainted.
Gladys got another text and hurried to school. Emeralda was walking and talking normally, but when she went back inside the girls’ bathroom, she smelled the strange smell of burning leaves again and thought she saw blood.
Although she was very disoriented, Esmeralda managed to get out of the school. “Mommy, I don’t feel well,” she told Gladys, before passing out again.
Like last time, in less than 12 hours, Esmeralda was back to normal.
This time, the entire school was locked down and searched for drugs. Nothing suspicious was discovered.
Over the next two months, similar episodes were reported at at least six high schools in four Mexican states hundreds of kilometers apart. In total, 227 children were affected, mostly girls.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador has begun including regular updates on the government’s investigation into the fainting cases in his daily press conferences.
Gladys did not believe the doctors. Like other parents, she feared her daughter had been drugged. All the tests came back negative, but Gladys remained skeptical.
“It is possible that something [suspect] to happen at school and they don’t want us to find out,” said Esmeralda’s mother.
Among the theories floated on social media and in the Mexican press are fertilizer poisoning, rare bacterial infections and smoke inhalation. An article in El Pais reported that an “unknown substance” may have been present in the water sources. Other news sites have mentioned a possible gas leak.
Doctor Carlos Alberto Pantoja Meléndez, one of the few field epidemiologists in Mexico, showed interest in this case. He conducted his own investigation and concluded that there was only one plausible explanation: mass hysteria, also known as mass psychogenic illness.
Mass hysteria is a rare psychological phenomenon in which a person develops unexpected behavior – fainting, screaming or convulsing – and other people around him involuntarily imitate his behavior.
Outbreaks of mass hysteria can last hours or months and usually occur in environments with a strict hierarchy where people spend a lot of time together, such as the workplace, religious centers or schools.
Although it most often spreads among people who are close, it can sometimes manifest itself among people who share the same space, but who do not know each other.
In the Middle Ages, mass hysteria was known as “dance mania”, where those affected felt an uncontrollable urge to dance.
During the Renaissance and the Puritan era, mass hysteria was associated with religion, and affected people were labeled as witches or people possessed by demons.
In modern times, cases of mass hysteria have been especially triggered by a strange smell, such as the burning smell of Tapachula. The smell is perceived as a threat, which triggers the human’s “fight or flight” instinct.
Adolescents, especially girls, are more vulnerable to mass psychosis, but it is not known for sure why.
Editor: Raul Nețoiu