Mexican authorities are still struggling to find answers to the seemingly unexplained fainting of hundreds of middle school students all over the country in the fall of last year.
On September 23, 2022, 12 students (11 girls and 1 boy) at the Federal 1 public secondary school in Tapachula, Mexico spontaneously collapsed in their classrooms, in the bathrooms, and in the school courtyard. Another 22 middle school students reported symptoms like severe headaches and vomiting. Interestingly, some of the affected students reported smelling something smoky in the air, like the scent of burning leaves, which led investigators to believe that drugs like marijuana had probably been to blame, but tests came back negative. Other students reported seeing a mustard-color powder in the bathroom on that day, but toxicology analysis again revealed nothing of interest. Eventually, doctors concluded that the kids had suffered panic attacks, but in the following days, similar incidents started being reported at other schools across Mexico…
Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash
Two weeks after the Federal 1 middle school incident, at least 68 students lost consciousness, started vomiting, or suddenly became disoriented at a middle school in Bochil, a rural community in the Mexican state of Chiapas, around 150 miles from Tapachula. Several of the children needed to be hospitalized, but this time toxicology tests detected traces of cocaine in four of them.
On October 11, there was another incident at the Federal 1 school in Tapachula. This time, another 18 children started fainting on school grounds for no apparent reason. One of them, a girl named Esmeralda, was also involved in the first fainting incident. Once again, she lost consciousness but was back to her normal self in about 12 hours. She told her mother that she had smelled the strange burning odor while in the girls’ bathroom before starting to feel dizzy and collapsing to the ground. This time, a team of specially-trained sniffer dogs were brought in, but they didn’t detect anything.
Over the next couple of months, hundreds of students at six different middle schools in four Mexican states hundreds of miles apart experienced fainting, unexplained dizziness, headaches and vomiting, and several of them needed several days, even weeks, to recover. In total, 227 children, mostly girls, were affected across the entire country, and authorities still don’t have a proper explanation for what happened.
Photo: Scott Webb/Unsplash
At one point, Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador included updates about the school fainting episodes in his daily press conferences, and even after the incidents stopped occurring, theories about their cause flooded social media networks. They included fertilizer poisoning, bacteria contamination, drugs, gas leaks, and water contamination, but no one had any evidence.
“It’s possible there’s something going on at the school and they don’t want us to find out,” Esmeralda’s mother said, adding that she had paid for drug tests, believing that her daughter had been drugged, but they all came back negative.
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, over time, the general consensus became that drugs had been involved. Some expressed concern about increasing drug use among middle school children, while others feared a twisted plot orchestrated by Mexican drug cartels. The latter theory was fueled by reports of shady characters hanging around schools in Bochil, and that several episodes had occurred in Chiapas, which lies on a well-known path for drug and migrant smugglers.
Photo: Taylor Flowe/Unsplash
Six of the kids involved in the original episode at Federal 1 were called to the Chiapas district attorney’s office to be questioned by a psychologist, but their depositions didn’t really help the investigation. In the DA report, there were mentions of “probable intoxication through food” and “probable transmission through the air”, while another report blamed a “probable intoxication with stimulants” for the episode in Bochil.
The mystery of this fainting “epidemic” intrigued many experts throughout Mexico and one of them, Dr. Carlos Alberto Pantoja Meléndez, an epidemiologist from Mexico City, actually conducted his own investigation based on the data available. He gradually ruled out drugs, because so many of the affected children had tested negative for a variety of psychotropic substances, and bacteria from contaminated food, insecticide poisoning, or heatstroke were also unlikely because they would have required too many coincidences to occur simultaneously.
Pantoja Meléndez deduced that, because most of the children had not felt sick prior to fainting or exhibiting symptoms like vomiting or dizziness, the episodes could not have been caused by anything ingested orally. Furthermore, many of the affected schools were not located close to farms or factories, so intoxication with pesticides or other industrial chemicals was also ruled out. In the doctor’s view, the only possible, albeit unlikely, cause was mass hysteria, aka mass psychogenic illness.
Apparently, mass hysteria is an extremely rare phenomenon where someone exhibits symptoms like fainting, twitching or screaming and then other people in their proximity involuntarily replicate the symptoms. It sometimes occurs in people who are emotionally close and where people spend a lot of time together, and it can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months. However, a big question remains – how could hysteria spread across hundreds of miles, through different states, among people who had never interacted with each other? The answer could be social media.
“It used to be that you had to be there. You had to be in the room,” Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland, told Insider Magazine. “But now social media is an extension of our senses, and we’re always playing catch up… I think we are on the verge of a much bigger, global epidemic.”
Meléndez and Bartholomew are now the only two people still investigating last year’s fainting epidemic, and their theory is that it was an episode of mass hysteria caused by the Internet and a combination of psychological and developmental disturbances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These children were in their homes for almost two years. That is significant in relation to the connection between the brain and the immune system,” Pantoja-Melendez said. “We’ve seen all sorts of weird things happen the past year.”
The two doctors plan to visit the affected schools this summer and interview the children to hopefully find an answer to this enigma.