Why did 50+ Olivet students believe they were sick?

Students stand in front of Blair Hall at Olivet College. (Sept. 10, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — More than 50 students from Olivet College were checked out at the hospital after they reported feeling ill earlier this week.

It all started when the three Blair Hall students became ill, experiencing headaches and vomiting.

Initially investigators thought it may be Carbon Monoxide poisoning, based on the students symptoms. However, tests came back negative for Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

Friday, school officials said only three of the more than 50 students living in the same dorm who appeared to fall ill were in fact sick.

After all three fainted at some point on Wednesday between midnight and early afternoon, the Olivet Fire Department started checking the dorm for elevated carbon monoxide levels out of caution.

Olivet College Dean and Provost Maria Davis Ph. D. said Friday all three of the ill students had pre-existing medical conditions, like gastroenteritis or dehydration. She likened the situation to a mother testing their child’s forehead for a fever.

So why did more than 50 students claim to be suffering from the same symptoms as the three sick students?

Licensed Psychologist Dr. Rebecca Klott from River City Psychological Services said it could be the result of group think.

“What you’re describing is a mass hysteria or a mass reaction,” Dr. Klott said. “Our mind can create for us all kinds of symptoms. We can start to talk to ourselves about having a headache and all of a sudden we’re like you know what my eye does feel a little bit of pain there. And then all of a sudden more and more symptoms show up.”

Dr. Klott said everyone has a level of suggestibility, for example she said if people hear a symptom like itching all of a sudden their mind goes to itching.

“We can normally check ourselves and we can normally talk to ourselves about it and say you know what that’s probably not happening I’m just kind of, but when your system that normally tells you nope I don’t have that doesn’t work out that’s when mass hysteria begins to demonstrate itself.”

She said situations like these have played out many times on a global scale.

“The swine flu actually a lot of people began to describe that they had symptoms of that and they were just fine,” Klott said. “So those kinds of events bring up in out maybe a little bit of fear.”

Klott says our sense that something may be wrong with us can often be elevated during a stressful time, like starting school.

She also said normally people can talk ourselves out of thinking they are experiencing a certain symptom, or they get distracted with something else and forget about it.

But that changes when others are around.

“In a mass situation, or a group situation that check in doesn’t work because the other person starts to say I have that too,” Klott said. “Instead of you moving onto something else you start to think more and more about it. And then you say those symptoms to them and they aren’t getting checked out and so it becomes almost this group kind of think that happens and everybody is starting to have that.”

The school said the situation was a good exercise to test the college’s response, should another emergency arise.

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On the web:

River City Psychological

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