Resignation syndrome in refugee children – a new hypothesis

February 22, 2016

Pär SegerdahlThere has been much discussion about the so-called “apathetic children” in families seeking asylum in Sweden. You read that right: in Sweden, not in other countries. By all accounts, these children are genuinely ill. They do not simulate total lack of willpower; like inability to eat, speak and move. They are in a life-threatening condition and show no reactions even to painful stimuli. But why do we have so many cases in Sweden and not in other countries?

Several hundred cases have been reported, which in 2014 led the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare to introduce a new diagnosis: resignation syndrome. The “Swedish” syndrome appears to be a mystery, almost like a puzzle to crack. There are asylum seeking families all around the world: why does this syndrome occur to such an extent in a single country?

If you want to think more about this puzzling question, I recommended a new article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, with Karl Sallin (PhD student at CRB) as first author. The article is long and technical, but for those interested, it is well worth the effort. It documents what is known about the syndrome and suggests a new hypothesis.

A common explanation of the syndrome is that it is a reaction to stress and depression. The explanation sounds intuitively reasonable, considering these children’s experiences. But if it were true, the syndrome should occur also in other countries. The mystery remains.

Another explanation is that the mother attempts to manage her trauma, her depression and her needs, by projecting her problems onto the child. The child, who experiences the mother as its only safety, adapts unconsciously and exhibits the symptoms that the mother treats the child as if it had. This explanation may also seem reasonable, especially considering another peculiarity of the syndrome: it does not affect unaccompanied refugee children, only children who arrive with their families. The problem is again: traumatized refugee families exist all around the world. So why is the syndrome common only in Sweden?

Now to Sallins’ hypothesis in the article. The hypothesis has two parts: one about the disease or diagnosis itself; and one about the cause of the disease, which may also explain the peculiar distribution.

After a review of symptoms and treatment response, Sallin suggests that we are not dealing with a new disease. The introduced diagnosis, “resignation syndrome,” is therefore inappropriate. We are dealing with a known diagnosis: catatonia, which is characterized by the same loss of motor skills. The children moreover seem to retain awareness, even though their immobility makes them seem unconscious. When they recover, they can often recall events that occurred while they were ill. They just cannot activate any motor skills. The catatonia hypothesis can be tested, Sallin suggests, by trying treatments with known responses in catatonic patients, and by performing PET scans of the brain.

The question then is: Why does catatonia arise only in refugee children in Sweden? That question brings us to the second part of the hypothesis, which has some similarities with the theory that the mother affects the child psychologically to exhibit symptoms: really have them, not only simulate them!

Here we might make a comparison with placebo and nocebo effects. If it is believed that a pill will have a certain impact on health – positive or negative – the effect can be produced even if the pill contains only a medically inactive substance. Probably, electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a phenomenon of this kind, having psychological causes: a nocebo effect.

The article enumerates cases where it can be suspected that catatonia-like conditions are caused psychologically: unexpected, unexplained sudden death after cancer diagnosis; death epidemics in situations of war and captivity characterized by hopelessness; acute or prolonged death after the utterance of magic death spells (known from several cultures).

The hypothesis is that life-threatening catatonia in refugee children is caused psychologically, in a certain cultural environment. Alternatively, one could say that catatonia is caused in the meeting between certain cultures and Swedish conditions, since it is more common in children from certain parts of the world. We are dealing with a culture bound psychogenesis.

Sallin compares with an outbreak of “hysteria” during the latter part of the 1800s, in connection with Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous demonstrations of hysterical patients, and where colorful symptom descriptions circulated in the press. Charcot first suggested that hysteria had organic causes. But when he later began to talk about psychological factors behind the symptoms, the number of cases of hysteria dropped.

(Perhaps I should point out that Sallin emphasizes that psychological causes are not to be understood in terms of a mind/body dualism.)

It remains to be examined exactly how meeting Swedish conditions contribute to psychologically caused catatonia in children in certain refugee families. But if I understand Sallin correctly, he thinks that the spread of symptom descriptions through mass media, and the ongoing practice of treating “children with resignation syndrome,” might be essential in this context.

If this is true, it creates an ethical problem mentioned in the article. There is no alternative to offering these children treatment: they cannot survive without tube feeding. But offering treatment also causes new cases.

Yes, these children must, of course, be offered care. But maybe Sallin, just by proposing psychological causes of the symptoms, has already contributed to reducing the number of cases in the future. Assuming that his hypothesis of a culture bound psychogenesis is true, of course.

What a fascinating interplay between belief and truth!

Pär Segerdahl

Sallin, K., Lagercrantz, H., Evers, K., Engström, I., Hjern, A., Petrovic, P., Resignation Syndrome: Catatonia? Culture-Bound? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 29, January 2016

This post in Swedish

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