How Certain Places Can Make You Lose Your Mind

From Florence to Rishikesh, some locations are associated with strange psychological maladies. Here are a few of the most unexpected.

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Can a place make you sick?

According to psychologists, the answer is “yes.” Or, more accurately, it’s “maybe.” We don’t know the mechanism by which a visit to Paris gives some visitors anxiety attacks. And scientists haven’t isolated what causes some children in Sweden to appear to become comatose.

All we know is that it happens. Traveling to certain geographic locations is associated with recognizable, reproducible mental breakdowns. Here are some of the most outlandish, strangest psychological syndromes associated with particular places in the world.

1. Resignation Syndrome

Refugee children relocated to Sweden are suffering a strange epidemic. Facing threats of deportation, hundreds of would-be immigrants between the ages of 8 and 15 are giving up, lying down, and disassociating from the waking world for years at a time.

The Swedish call it uppgivenhetssyndrom: resignation syndrome. They call the young sufferers de apatiska, the apathetic. The refugee children simply collapse in a medically inexplicable coma. They don’t respond to doctors or family members. They don’t move. They don’t do anything at all.

The only known cure for the ailment is allowing the families to stay in Sweden. Recognizing this harsh truth, the Migration Board of Sweden decided to allow the families of children suffering from uppgivenhetssyndrom to stay in the nation.

Once the news comes through that the family won’t be removed from the nation, the children return to life, slowly but surely.

Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker wrote a comprehensive article about the condition. Interviewed by NPR in March 2017, Aviv shared the results of a 2006 Swedish government report about resignation syndrome.

“The report posed a theory that the children, many of them Roma, came from holistic cultures, without a clear boundary between the individual self and the family,” she said. “The children were sacrificing themselves for their families. They take on a martyr role. And, in fact, the illness does allow the family to stay.”

2. India Syndrome

Jonathan Spollen, an Irish journalist and spiritual seeker, took a trip to India in 2012. One day, he walked out of the city of Rishikesh, the “yoga capital of the world,” and disappeared. His family hasn’t heard from him since.

Spollen wasn’t the first young Westerner to take a spiritual quest to India never to return. And he likely won’t be the last. French psychiatrist Régis Airault wrote a book about the strange and pervasive phenomenon in 2000: Fous de L’Inde, which translates as Crazy for India.

“More than any other country, India has a way of stimulating imagination and stirring intense aesthetic emotions which can at any moment plunge the traveler into utter anxiety,” Airault wrote, as quoted by CNN.

“Freud himself was sensitive to the intimate feelings stirred up by certain places. Travel, like hypnosis, is partly evocation, and some more easily than others let themselves be carried away without resistance.”

Some assume that Spollen and others like him are out there still, meditating in a remote cave. Others believe they’ve joined wilderness monasteries. More tragically, perhaps they leaped from a bridge or fell into a river. One thing is for sure: For now, they are far beyond the reach of their families.

3. Jerusalem Syndrome

Around 1870, an Anglican priest named J.E. Hanauer made an observation about the Holy Land, as quoted in the Telegraph: “It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter.”

In this regard, at least, times have not changed.

A 2000 paper published in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Israeli psychiatrist Yair Bar-El and colleagues outlines three types of a disorder called Jerusalem syndrome.

Type 1 Jerusalem syndrome concerns patients who have existing psychotic tendencies that drive them to the Holy Land in pursuit of unrealistic goals.

Type 2 describes patients who have personality disorders or obsessive thoughts and act out of a religious compulsion, sometimes haranguing passersby or delivering strange sermons.

Type 3 Jerusalem syndrome is the most baffling. Sufferers of this subtype have no previous mental health issues. They don’t visit Jerusalem planning to lose their minds. They’re regular tourists.

Then something in the city, its history, and importance to three major world religions, perhaps, takes control. The patients isolate themselves; they tear hotel sheets into makeshift togas.

Finally, they begin preaching incomprehensibly. They march to a prominent holy site in the city and offer a bizarre sermon. Once these stages pass, most patients return to their previous state of mental health.

Removing the patients from Jerusalem tends to be the best cure, Bar-El writes.

4. Stendhal, or Florence, Syndrome

Legendary French novelist Stendhal (who was really named Marie-Henri Beyle) visited Florence, Italy, in 1817. While there, he stopped in at the Basilica of Santa Croce, where he encountered a stunning fresco of the sibyls, created by Renaissance artist Il Volterrano around 1560.

An article from the British Journal of General Practice quotes Stendhal on what happened next:

“I was already in a kind of ecstasy, by the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in contemplating sublime beauty, I saw it close up—I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling.

“As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.”

Hundreds of fellow art lovers across the centuries have a similar experience when they visit Florence. By 1979, the condition was widespread enough for an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini to give it a name. She chose “Stendhal syndrome,” but others call it Florence syndrome to this day; it’s essentially an art-induced panic attack.

5. Paris Syndrome

Japanese tourists who visit Paris are taking a risk. For reasons that scientists don’t fully understand, Japanese visitors to the City of Lights occasionally come down with a psychological condition called, appropriately, Paris syndrome. Symptoms include sweating, anxiety, and even hallucinations.

Psychologists suggest that the anxiety attack comes from a combination of typical travel woes (jet lag, language barriers, culture shock) with dashed expectations. Many Japanese visitors associate Paris with love, romance, and magic.

When they arrive in the all-too-real city, complete with unkind locals, their disappointment is profound. Their minds collapse under the weight of it.

According to Australia’s SBS News, the Japanese embassy in Paris operates a 24-hour hotline for sufferers of Paris syndrome. The embassy sends about 20 of their nationals home from France every year; leaving Paris is the only cure.

Summing It All Up

Okay, let’s review. What have we learned?

A small but not insignificant number of visitors to Jerusalem, Paris, Florence, and India have mental breakdowns during their trips. These psychological crises are associated with the cities themselves.

Plus, refugee children in Sweden lose their will to live when the government threatens to deport them. Only removing the threat returns the children to their lives.

Places have power over mental health. Traveling is stressful.

Shoot. Who’s up for a nice, relaxing staycation this year?

HealthyWay Staff Writer
HealthyWay’s Staff Writers work to provide well-researched, thought-provoking content.

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