Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jerusalem Syndrome

A few weeks ago, the conversation in our Hebrew class (or, should I say one of my teacher's long, unrelated tangents...) somehow segued into the topic of a mental disorder called "Jerusalem Syndrome".  Now, I may be relatively new to the field of counseling and therapy, but this is definitely one illness that ran by me. I didn't recall reading about it in my textbooks or the DSM IV. I know that they are editing the DSM IV into a new version for 2012, but come on....really? Was he pulling our leg? There was just something about those two words put next to each other, "Jerusalem" and "syndrome", that seemed so off. Quite a few raised eyebrows from fellow students (for those who were still listening...) and many discerning grimaces led to increased curiosity. What the heck was our "moreh" (teacher) talking about!? As we continued to prod our teacher for questions, we soon came to realize that he wasn't pulling a fast one on us at all. This "Jerusalem Syndrome" was a real thing, as real as real can be.


It might sound a little crazy, and, well....I guess it sort of is a little crazy....but my research tells me that there is indeed a diagnosable disorder called the "Jerusalem Syndrome" that even has an entire floor of treatment facilities devoted to its existence at the local Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem (seen below).  


So what is it? The crux of the disorder is based around the notion that whether you were mentally ill or not before you got to Jerusalem, that when you you get here, something happens to become inspired or convinced (perhaps through a "direct message" from G-d) that you are a grandiose person who must do something to bring about a major religious event such as the coming of the Messiah, the war of Armageddon or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 


Oddly enough, the same clinical picture always emerges. In documented cases (and there have been a number of them), the person first becomes noticeably anxious and nervous. This anxiety is then followed by an imperative need to visit the holy places immediately. The person will usually take part in purification rituals, including shaving off hair, cutting nails and cleaning the body meticulously. Next, the person will dress himself or herself in white clothes, often draping themselves in the hotel's white bed linens. Reportedly, the person will then begin singing or praying Biblical melodies in a loud, booming voice. Finally, the "Jerusalem Syndrome" victim will make his or her way to a specific holy site where he or she will preach a boisterous sermon requesting that humanity return to a more simplistic and holy life, away from the material world. 


Here's a quick look at statistics. There are about 2 million tourists who travel to Jerusalem each year. Of those 2 million, about 100 are referred to the clinic for treatment of the disorder. Of those 100 referrals, only about 40 of them will require treatment. But if you ask me, 40 is still 40 too many. Research has also shown that in about 97% of the cases, the victims were of Protestant background and had grown in an ultra-Orthodox religious family. 

You're probably thinking that these people were already mentally unstable before they arrived in Jerusalem. But, actually not. Experts on the subject suggest that there are three branches of "Jerusalem Syndrome". The first type is superimposed on a previously existing mental illness (which is the one you would consider the most obvious). However, in addition to this is the second type which takes the form of an obsession with the significance of Jerusalem (could technically happen to anyone). And then there is the third type - the most fascinating one - which showcases itself as a discrete illness, completely unrelated to any previous mental illness. Meaning: could happen to you or me. A person afflicted by this third string of the disorder might be completely "normal" before and after visiting Israel, but becomes afflicted during his visit to the holy city. 

Doctors have suggested a few possible reasons for this behavior. It is possible that religious people may arrive in Jerusalem, surprised to not find prophets running around in sandals. Instead they see businessmen on cell phones (even I get a laugh out of seeing the utterly religious walking around with blackberries and a blue tooth). Or perhaps it's the fact that Jerusalem and Israel in general is a religiously charged place full of history and religious significance. People simply get carried away. I like to call it simply "culture shock". But, doctors and psychologists call it "Jerusalem Syndrome". Surprisingly, Jerusalem is not the only city to be afflicted with such a disorder. Apparently, there is "Stendhal Syndrome" that people develop when visiting Mecca or Rome. There is also the "Paris Syndrome" which is commonly linked to Japanese tourists in Paris; very odd, I know. The proof is in the facts! 

I just felt that the "Jerusalem Syndrome" was such an odd item to learn about that I had to share it with you. So, ever since I found out about its existence, I knew I would be sharing it with the blogging world. If you are interested, there is even a movie  (see the poster to the right) that has been made about "Jerusalem Syndrome" which is loosely based on the actual 1969 event when an Australian tourist got carried away with divine mission, setting fire to the local Al-Asqa mosque, inciting a crowd of rioters to join in. Here is a link to more information about the movie if you're interested: click here. The movie is comedic and revolves around the adventures of three travelers, one who (obviously) becomes afflicted by "Jerusalem Syndrome". 

Now, in sum, I'm not sure if this disorder will ever make it into the DSM's official records, but only time will tell. Beware visitors, let this mental illness not take a hold of you upon your next visit to Jerusalem! And if you do make it here and spot a crazy man running around in a white sheet...well, you'll know exactly what is going on with him. 

1 comment:

  1. This is really fascinating! I definitely had never heard about this!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.