The Indian media has almost arrived at a consensus on the reason behind the mystery deaths of the 11 members of a family in Delhi's Burrari area. The police, unable to find any external intervention, has almost ruled out murder. So, it could be 'shared psychosis' at play. It could also be a fallacy of hasty generalization.
Shared psychosis is derived from the French phrase 'folie à deux' meaning the 'madness of two.' In simpler terms, a person develops a delusion that someone or an organization is trying to endanger him. But he never reveals his anxiety to anyone in society. He could be a well-mannered and amiable person. Finally, he discloses his apprehension to his life partner or friend. His friend has no reason to believe that the one telling him something is wrong or has developed a delusional disorder. So, he shares the same apprehensions. This could lead to a situation where both the people live under the same roof with the same delusion of persecution. Shared psychosis, with all its typical symptoms and conditions, is but rare. Delusion of persecution, mystic feelings, and hallucination are common symptoms of this syndrome.
There was an instance in Australia where an entire family got deluded and ran away. After a mental breakdown, Mark Tromp developed a paranoiac delusion of persecution. He believed that someone was trying to endanger them. His wife and children believed and shared this common apprehension. They all spent some time at their farmhouse for a while. Finally, he got overwhelmed with the fear that their lives were no longer safe there. Persuaded by Mark Tromp , his family - including wife, Jacoba, 53; son Mitchell, 25; and daughter's Riana, 29, and Ella, 22 - left their farm in Silvan, east of Melbourne.
After five days, the police could locate all members of the Tromp family. They all were later mentally rehabilitated.
In a patriarchal society like India, there is a greater probability of shared psychotic conditions occurring in a family. Here, the male figure-father or husband dictates everything. Psychologists have come across people who believe that they have extrasensory powers like precognition and clairvoyance. Other than this delusion, they are absolutely normal and his/her family members believe the powers to be true. Some others believe in imminent doomsday, while others believe that they can use their psychic energy to manipulate things. As these people are admired by their family members they are never taken to a mental health professional.
Changing such delusional thoughts in an individual is not that easy as it requires psychotherapy and medication which is not possible without the cooperation of the individuals. But their family could be saved from getting misled by his ideas of atrocious acts like suicide.
Believing a dear one, especially the patriarchal figure, is not a disorder in itself. We see such mass delusions in our society everyday. A lot of people get carried away by the teachings of godmen and do illogical things. When people move forward wholeheartedly on a mob frenzy to exterminate a group of human beings do we call it delusion? When people carry out a suicide bombing, killing thousands expecting to please a creator, do we call it insanity?
According the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders delusion is an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder. The common beliefs or myths held by a socio-religious culture cannot be called a delusion.
A revered person in Kerala used to say that he could talk to his deceased wife. Even though it was nothing but a delusional disorder or even hallucination, no one suspected it as a disorder because of his stature.
People’s temple was a socio-spiritual organization started by Jim Johns in Indiana, the US. The organization was noted for its virtues and value systems of Christianity, socialism, gender equality and communism. They did some real social service in the beginning. But soon, Jim Johns was projected as an incarnation of Jesus Christ. The organization got involved in some unlawful activites. Jim Johns himself accused the American government of being anti-Christ. The commune was moved to Johnstown in Guyana later.
On November 17, 1978, Jim asked his followers to consume the divine drink and embrace death. He assured his followers of a royal paradise after this worldly life. The drink contained potassium cyanide mixed with grape juice. Some 918 people committed suicide following the delusion of a criminal.
Even though there could be strong underlying psychological reasons behind the Delhi Burrari deaths, it need not necessarily be a typical case of shared psychosis. As said earlier, it could be a delusional disorder of the family head, which the other members thought was true. And they followed him to death.
(The author is a behavioral psychologist and a cyber psychology consultant)