And yet many continue to question the diagnosis; they can't seem to take conversion disorder seriously. That could be partly due to conflicting agendas -- Erin Brockovich doesn't lose: If the girls do have conversion disorder -- a kind of neurological condition that has a wide variety of symptoms, including tics, verbal outbursts, and even loss of vision and paralysis -- it would mean that it's due to nothing more than stress. "What happens is there [is] traditionally some kind of stress or multiple stressors that provoke a physical reaction within the body," Dr. Jennifer McVige, a neurologist who has worked with several of the teenagers, told CNN. And it's partly due to the disorder's complicated history.
Criticized because it is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that all other possibilities must be exhausted before the diagnosis is made, conversion disorder dates back to Sigmund Freud and was formerly known, more controversially, as hysteria. The term comes from the Greek word for uterus and, of course, was a once-common diagnosis for females said to be suffering from a variety of symptoms, including fluid retention, nervousness, and loss of appetite for sex, before Freud started reclassifying these diagnoses as anxiety neuroses. Female hysteria is no longer recognized, but you'll find conversion disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard text used by all psychiatrists, and it includes manifestations of hysteria (as does schizophrenia, anxiety attacks, and other DSM-classified disorders).
One argument used against conversion disorder as a diagnosis for what's currently going on in tiny LeRoy is that the diagnosis is uncommon and it doesn't make sense to see it in so many teenagers at once. "It's very unusual to have conversion symptoms that are 'contagious,' Dr. Jay Salpekar, director of the Neurobehavioral Program at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, told CNN. But could that simple be because individuals seek individual treatment? Groups are rarely diagnosed together.
But this wouldn't be the first time. Thirty-one chorus members in Lockport, New York, fell ill around the same time in 2004 and then quickly recovered. Fourteen Florida high school students all developed loud breathing problems at the same time in 2007. Thirty years ago, in 1982, about 100 people in Los Angeles all believed they had contracted food poisoning, but they hadn't. Dozens of factory workers at a plant in West Virginia passed out before a conversion diagnosis was made.
And let's not forget the most famous mass hysteria case of them all, a case that the teenagers at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School probably only just recently learned about: The demonically possessed women of Salem, Massachusetts, involved in the infamous Salem witch trials of the 1600s. Like late 17th-century America, many African and Caribbean cultures blame the expression of conversion disorders in groups on witchcraft and other malicious magic. (As recently as 2010, students in Trinidad were thought to be possessed when they started screaming and collapsing in groups.)
But we're not in Salem anymore. Conversion disorder can be treated with anti-anxiety drugs for stress, physical therapy for uncontrollable movements, and counseling to resolve any underlying medical or psychological issues. Interested parties may disagree about what's troubling the girls of LeRoy but almost everybody believes they will each make a full recovery.
Image: Aeriel view of LeRoy Junior-Senior High School.