Mass hysteria or witchcraft?
Publish Date: Mar 18, 2013
Mass hysteria or witchcraft?
A student of Kitebi Primary School, who suffered from what experts describe as hysteria, is helped by parents and students.
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By Stephen Ssenkaaba

It started as a joke; one girl collapsed and started making funny noises. Many thought she was faking it, but Eunice only got worse. As the school authorities planned to isolate her for further medical examination, a host of other students started acting in the same way.

They were later found to be victims of hysteria, a relatively common convulsive attack that often leaves people behaving like they are possessed.

What is mass hysteria?

Hysteria is a serious condition. According to Ann Tweheyo, a counselling psychologist from the Ugandan Christian University Mukono, it is a psychological disorder, characterised by trauma and extreme emotional anxiety.

“It presents through excessive negative and sometimes positive emotions — it could be too much fear, love, or frustration that people fail to handle. It is common among adolescents and often leads to panic attacks when individuals fail to handle these excessive emotions.”

Who is prone?

Sometimes hysteria affects large numbers of people- this is especially in schools. This is called mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria keeps afflicting schools. Last month, for instance, a hysteria case happened in Butyomuddo Memorial Primary School, Gomba.

Two students started shouting and rolling on the floor before their parents were called in. Not even the intervention of religious leaders could calm the students down.

Confused parents and some villagers blamed this condition on ‘witchcraft’. In March 2011, 100 pupils from a well-established government-aided primary school in Lubaga division tried to kill their teacher after reportedly becoming hysterical and acting as if they were possessed by evil spirits.

It took the intervention of the Police, parents and school authorities to handle the situation. Several other schools have reported hysteria cases among students. It is usually a stressful time for all concerned.

Terrible signs

In schools, hysteria usually happens when a student or a group of students suddenly start convulsing, while making strange loud noises. If not restrained, these students often run around, sometimes undressing and fighting whoever gets into their way.


Tweheyo says among adolescents, hysteria comes when they see a person they love too much or when they remember a traumatic experience — an abuse or anything like that.

These seizures sometimes occur during normal term time and in some cases during tense moments, especially at exam periods. In extreme cases, the affected students become violent and messy. In many cases, they cannot easily be tamed.

Is it really witchcraft?

Some people have associated hysteria with demonic attacks and witchcraft. But Dr. Margaret Mungherera, an experienced consultant psychiatrist from Mulago Hospital, says mass hysteria is not linked to witchcraft. It is a psychological condition, she says, that usually stems from unresolved issues of an individual.

“Such issues may be related to tension, unhappiness or worries about a situation that is happening or has happened in a person’s life. From bad relationships (family or peer) to bad experiences like war, she says, hysteria can be triggered by any encumbrances that creep into people’s lives.

The situation is usually exacerbated by absence of emotional support when the affected people hold on to traumatic emotions. “When they don’t find who to share their problem with, becoming hysterical is an involuntary way of getting themselves out of their fix,” she says.


Usually hysteria presents in physical body movement, excessive shaking, paralysis of the arm, blinking followed by screaming and shouting. Mugherera explains that often the condition starts with one person and then spreads to others around that person.

In many cases, girls are more likely to experience this condition, than boys, mainly because “girls are more emotional and impressionable than their male counterparts”, Mungherera elaborates.


Without giving specific numbers, Mungherera says mass hysteria is common among young students of school going age, particularly the girls. Tweheyo, however, says these cases are usually handled at the school level and are not usually brought into counselling. “As such we rarely get hysteria cases,” she adds.

How to handle hysteria cases

Treatment for hysteria involves isolating the hysterical individuals and dealing with their problem. “Thereafter, they can be put into hypnosis — a psychological exercise that enables an individual to concentrate intensely on a specific thought or memory, while resisting distractive thoughts,” says Mungherera.

They can also be put through abreaction, also a psychological exercise that enables one to express emotional tension associated with repressed ideas by bringing such ideas to their awareness. “This requires them to go through their life history, and not only identify those conflicts in their past, but also talk about them with a counsellor,” she adds.

Tweheyo says in finding treatment, counsellors need to work closely with the teachers, friends of the affected students (in case of a school) as well as their parents “to help them understand the condition of their children and also make them part of their healing process”, she says.

Unfortunately today, hysteria is confused for witchcraft and people spend time going to witch doctors for answers.

Mungherera says hysteria can be well handled by qualified counsellors. That is why it is important that schools have counselors stationed at the schools for students” she said. Unfortunately most schools do not have counsellors.

Adverse effects

If not treated in time, hysteria can result into adverse outcomes for the sufferers. Delayed treatment can result in post-traumatic stress for an individual, mental breakdown and sometimes suicide, says Tweheyo.

To avoid these outcomes, she advises, parents and schools to be on the lookout for any signs of anxiety among children.

How schools handle hysteria

Some head teachers New Vision spoke to said they have counsellors. “We employ them to be able to attend to our students in difficult times,” Margaret Watuwa, the head teacher at Kololo SS, said.

There are many schools, however, that need to emulate this example. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end of problems like hysteria in schools.

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