A few days ago The New York Times published an article about an uncommon story. In Sweden, hundreds of refugee children have been diagnosed with uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome: an illness developed after hearing the shocking news that their families would be deported from Sweden. As a response to the trauma these children fall into a total unconscious sleep, almost a coma, for months.
Bedridden in the hospitals, it’s almost as if these children had decided to temporarily switch off their lives: they breathe, but they don’t eat, drink, or respond to any external inputs. The anomaly of this illness currently only exists in Sweden and exclusively between young refugees.
While it’s not surprising that the distressing experiences that migrants have to go through to reach safe countries can cause a wide range of mental health issues, the story of the sleeping children of Sweden is particularly terrifying. The idea that the unique symptoms of this syndrome have developed in such an exclusive geopolitical environment makes its understanding and potential cure hard to define.
How do doctors and psychotherapist approach this clinical condition considering that the cause is so profoundly entangled with international politics? To which extent does the prevention and the cure of this mysterious illness depend on the Swedish immigration policy? It’s arguable that a majority of mental health illnesses are in one way triggered or reinforced by the socio-political and cultural landscape in which they emerge, but the one described in The New York Times brings the acknowledgment of this association to a next level.
This might be an extreme example of how mental health and culture, ethics, and politics are all related, yet the dynamics of this rare illness reveal how psychotherapy and clinical practices should constantly be informed by the historical context in which they are performed.
By Sofia Gallarate