Sweden’s Apathetic Children: Traumatized By Deportation, Fallen From Life

“Georgi was given a diagnosis of uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome, an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees. The patients have no underlying physical or neurological disease, but they seem to have lost the will to live. The Swedish refer to them as de apatiska, the apathetic. “I think it is a form of protection, this coma they are in,” Hultcrantz said. “They are like Snow White. They just fall away from the world.”

The apathetic children began showing up in Swedish emergency rooms in the early two-thousands. Their parents were convinced that they were dying. Of what, they didn’t know; they worried about cholera or some unknown plague. Soon patients with the condition filled all the beds in Stockholm’s only psychiatric inpatient unit for children, at Karolinska University Hospital. Göran Bodegård, the director of the unit, told me that he felt claustrophobic when he entered the rooms. “An atmosphere of Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ lingered around the child,” he said. The blinds were drawn, and the lights were off. The mothers whispered, rarely spoke to their sick children, and stared into the darkness.

By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the condition. In the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Bodegård described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” Nearly all the children had emigrated from former Soviet and Yugoslav states, and a disproportionate number were Roma or Uyghur. Sweden has been a haven for refugees since the seventies, accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation, but the country’s definition of political refugees had recently narrowed. Families fleeing countries that were not at war were often denied asylum.
In an open letter to the Swedish minister of migration, forty-two psychiatrists asserted that the new restrictions on asylum seekers and the time it took the Migration Board to process their applications—children could be in limbo for years—were causing the disease. They accused the government of “systematic public child abuse.” Opinion within the medical community converged on the theory that the illness was a reaction to two traumas: harassment in the children’s home country, and the dread, after acclimating to Swedish society, of returning. Sweden’s leading medical journal, Läkartidningen, devoted dozens of articles, and several poems, to the syndrome. “Your eyes had seen it all / aged with an old man’s weariness without any hope of life in the future,” Mildred Oudin, the chief of child psychiatry in Skövde, in central Sweden, wrote. Magnus Kihlbom, the director of an institute for child psychiatry in Stockholm, proposed in the journal that the disorder represented a kind of willed dying. Kihlbom cited the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote that some prisoners in the concentration camps were “so totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that they had given the environment total power over them.” They “stopped eating, sat mute and motionless in corners, and expired.”
Swedish news programs broadcast footage of children on stretchers being loaded into airplanes and expelled from the country. Sweden prides itself on its commitment to helping the most vulnerable, and the illness was seen as an affront to the country’s national character. Even the King was alarmed.”

Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article here.

*I recall this topic being discussed at dinner parties during my most recent (and final) attempt to return to this country I once thought might be “my” country, though I was 11 when we suddenly moved there. It was discussed as a controversial assertion–something that one camp claimed existed for real and another, (one was to assume more valid,) was dismissive of. Heads tilted in the glow of the candle light. Oh oh oh, how hard it is to know if anything is really actually true. I remember a prickly rage rising up my throat and a strong effort to keep my mouth shut. Because I knew it was true. And I knew that if I said that I would be the loser, the emotional one, the immigrant, the dirty goat.

I experienced “intellectual” life in Sweden as torture. One knew only one thing: Sweden must simultaneously emerge seeming to have been dipped in self-recrimination, but in actual fact, emerge un-touched and gleaming, like silver.