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Schools and mass anxiety hysteria in Benue

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Sir: The Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW) is deeply concerned about the closure of a school over supposed ‘spiritual attacks in Benue in Central Nigeria. Such a measure is a dark precedent that is incompatible with the values of education, research, critical reasoning, and inquiry, which schools represent- or should embody.

The report says that ten students experienced some ‘spiritual attack’ at a secondary school in Markurdi Benue, and school authorities had to shut down the school. From the report, the school did not invite a medical officer or a psychologist to examine the students and assess their health situation. The school did not take any medical or scientific measures to address this development.

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A school teacher called it, “Iyor genen” a Tiv expression for hysteria. The teacher told a journalist that, “the pupils experienced a seizure and complained of chest pain, “from there, they will fall, and some others would be running around.” Unfortunately, the school authorities gave a spiritual interpretation to what is a medical condition - mass anxiety hysteria. These are episodes of acute anxiety that predominately feature among schoolchildren. Teachers and educational authorities should know this. Shouldn’t they? To regard this incident as a ‘spiritual attack’ implies it is beyond science and common sense. It suggests that a scientific explanation is insufficient or unsatisfactory.

As an AFAW contact person in Benue State rightly noted “Attributing a medical condition to spiritual attack amounts to discouraging inquiry. A good teacher ought to promote inquiry. A teacher or an educational institution that claims that a medical problem has a spiritual origin blunts the minds of young students. And this is tragic.” According to this advocate: “This is why we need to adopt the teaching of critical thinking for both students and teachers.

The incident at the junior secondary school in Markudi has demonstrated the worrisome state of science education and learning in the country. There is no evidence that this case of mass hysteria has some links to the spirits, demons or witches as many suppose. Instead, what happened at the junior secondary school was an opportunity to educate the students, and provide a scientific explanation and evidence-based management of mass anxiety hysteria. The school missed an opportunity to enlighten and promote science. AFAW urges all schools to abandon superstitions and encourage scientific and critical thinking among students.

By Leo Igwe

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