Doctor offers new details on teen girls' mystery illness

Jan. 20, 2012 at 12:10 PM ET

They say this is stress induced," Thera Sanchez, one of the girls affected by a strange condition that causes severe tics, told TODAY earlier this week. "That's all they do is stress me out more."

After a week of speculation and months of worry for the families of 12 girls affected by a mystery illness that causes severe Tourette’s-like tics and verbal outbursts, the doctor who has treated 10 of the girls from upstate New York offered new details on their condition.

Since TODAY first reported the baffling cases Monday, the show has received overwhelming response from parents and viewers worried about the cause of the sudden illness and wondering why doctors have been unable to treat the girls.

Dr. Laszlo Mechtler says there is nothing for the community or other parents to fear.

“I’d like to reassure the community that this is not an infectious disease,” Mechtler, vice president of the Dent Neurological Institute, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Friday. “It’s not contagious. These are real symptoms. But these girls will get better. We have to give them time and space.”

Mechtler says the girls are suffering from a rare, stress-induced condition known as “mass psychogenic illness,” a physiological problem that can occur in groups such as teenage girls.

“It’s a disorder that occurs in small groups, especially girls in schools in small towns,” Mechtler said. “And what happens is that one individual – the so-called index case – may have a neurological disorder. And then all of a sudden several other ladies have similar symptoms.”

The girls, who all attended LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York, aren’t consciously mimicking one another or faking it, Mechtler said.

“This is a subconscious effect that occurs in patients that may be prone to anxiety or mood disorders,” he explained. “But these are definitely real symptoms. It sounds like an infectious disease, but should not be perceived as one. The state department of health made a complete review of the air quality and mold - and everything was negative so we do not think this has an infectious cause.”

Officials from the school have released environmental reports, conducted by an outside agency, showing no substances in any of the school buildings that could cause health problems.

Over the past 600 years there have other cases of mass psychogenic illness – but they are rare, Mechtler said.

“In the last 100 years most of the cases have occurred either in factories, in schools, or in nunneries,” he added. “It’s in the literature. But it’s been poorly evaluated because it is very rare.

Teen girls' mystery illness now has a diagnosis: mass hysteria

“Historically it’s been more often seen in young ladies, but I have to tell you it’s seen in men. There have been army barracks with men involved.”

Perhaps a more familiar case is the Salem Witch Trials which are thought to have had their roots in a similar knot of girls struck by mass psychogenic illness.

Mechtler said it’s unclear why girls are more susceptible to the condition, but speculated that it may be hormonal or because teenage girls are more prone to anxiety. Some of the girls have significantly improved and gone back to school and others have plateaued, Mechtler told TODAY.

While 10 of the 12 girls are currently being evaluated and cared for at the Dent Neurological Institute, the remaining two have rejected the diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness.

Earlier this week the two girls appeared on the TODAY show to talk about their dilemma. Thera Sanchez dismissed the suggestion that there might be a psychological component to their illness.

“I want an answer,” Sanchez said, her words periodically punctuated with jerking motions and involuntary grunts and squeals. “I’ve had psychological treatment. They say this is stress induced. My psychological treatment …. That’s all they do is stress me out more.”

Both Sanchez and her mother say they want an answer -- and for Sanchez to get her life back.

“I used to work,” she said. “And I used to love going to school every day. Now I am not at school. I start home tutoring soon. I’m very behind.” 


More on the mystery illness:

What is mass hysteria? Conversion disorder, explained

What are your theories on the mystery illness? Share your thoughts on TODAY Health FacebooK.