Was the Auckland 'gas leak' a mass hysteria outbreak?

Long Lunch 11/05/2018
Photo: Newshub.

A gas leak reported in Auckland has yet to be confirmed by authorities, despite 15 hospitalisations.

Fire and Emergency says it wasn't a gas leak. Though initially reported as a leak, no trace of one was actually found.

Emergency services were called to Augusta House on Victoria St West in the CBD twice on Thursday after people in the building became unwell.

"I think we should stop calling it a gas leak, because I'm not sure that's exactly what's happened," Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Dave Woon told Newshub.

Mr Wood explained that the issue is more of an odour that made people nauseous, though the evacuees couldn’t agree on the smell

The victims are often disturbed because they feel you're telling them it's not real.

UCLA School of Medicine psychiatry professor Dr Gary Small told Wendyl Nissen that while he doesn’t know the exact details of this incident, he’s studied a number of mass hysteria outbreaks.

Mass hysteria, as Dr Small describes, is when a group of people under stress experience physical symptoms.

“It spreads by social contagion among the group members. Often it is short-lived, but sometimes these outbreaks can go on for quite a bit of time,” he told RadioLIVE.

He said people are often unwilling to consider the possibility of mass sociogenic illness because of the stigma.

“The victims are often disturbed because they feel you’re telling them it’s not real,” Mr Small said. “We’re not saying that – the symptoms are very real.”

Stress and anxiety are usually what sparks it, and it's spread by communication - in the past that would be newspapers and TV, nowadays social media.

"With all the toxic environmental risks and all the real threats out there, you can get a mixture of a real, physical cause of an outbreak and on top of that is anxiety, that causes psychological symptoms to spread."

Females are predominantly affected, Dr Small explains, and the hysteria spreads according to the social hierarchy of the group.

“It’s human nature to notice these kinds of things when you’re anxious about it.

“To me it seems remarkable that it doesn’t occur more often because there’s so much stress.”

Listen to the full interview with Gary Small above.

The Long Lunch with Wendyl Nissen, 12pm - 3pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.