In our age of advanced medical understanding, it seems that most physical ailments are identifiable. Patients may experience nausea, fever, rashes or any number of other symptoms that allow doctors to easily identify that a person is sick with something like a common cold. Even mental illnesses such as depression can be understood based on symptoms that are a result of internal imbalances or irregularities. But in Sweden, a decades-old phenomenon has been observed that extends beyond the comprehensible borders of illness, puzzling doctors and laypeople alike with its highly specific nature and surprising element of contagion.
Resignation syndrome, called uppgivenhetssyndrom in Swedish, is an illness that causes people to shut down. Those who experience it enter a coma-like state of apathy, not eating, speaking or interacting with those around them. Put simply, they have resigned themselves to the point of lifelessness. Resigned individuals usually need feeding tubes to get nutrients into their bodies. The people around them are forced to step into the role of caretakers, keeping their loved ones alive during their dormancy. This can go on for days, weeks or even months. Strangely, this phenomenon has only affected young people—specifically children or early adolescents.
Why are otherwise healthy children slipping into these vegetative states?
Those who suffer from this condition are children of asylum-seeking people in Sweden. Having left their home countries, these families are at the mercy of an immigration system that will decide whether or not they will be deported. In addition to the stress of being a refugee, some of these children have also witnessed inhumane acts of violence against their parents during their migration. Healthcare professionals posit that the horrific trauma experienced by these children is what causes them to become unresponsive.
Rachel Aviv, a reporter for The New Yorker, told NPR that she had heard of something similar, but the resigned children she observed were unlike anything she had ever seen.
“There was a slang term, muselmann, referring to captives in concentration camps in World War II. They were people who decided to stop trying, to just sort of give up,” Aviv says. “Once you realize that nothing you do will change your situation, you give up and become passive. But that [resignation syndrome] wasn’t quite the same thing.”
Netflix’s “Life Overtakes Me” depicts resigned children and their families over a period of months. John Haptas, filmmaker of the Oscar-winning documentary, said that working on the film seemed to make this disorder even more difficult to understand.
“The thing we found out is that if you talk to eight experts, you get ten opinions,” Haptas says. “There really aren’t good answers.”
Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of this phenomenon is how it seems to be somewhat contagious, though not in the same way as the flu. Experts suggest that the reason multiple members of a family or community may become resigned is a psychological one.
“It’s a little like the way anorexia emerged in the U.S. at a moment in time when people were preoccupied with body image and the media were emphasizing thinness,” says Aviv. “The illness borrows from the culture, and suddenly you have all these people who are starving themselves and doctors began diagnosing anorexia. It’s hard to pinpoint what the mechanism would be for children to develop resignation syndrome. It seems to have become a culturally permissible way of expressing one’s despair.”
In contrast to the part of Sweden’s cultural climate that may lead children to resign themselves, the country’s treatment of immigrants is one of the best in the world in comparison to other nations.
“While they’re there, Sweden’s taking care of them—they’re housed, they have medical care. Their children are going to school. They have a life,” says Kristine Samuelson, Haptas’ co-filmmaker.
“It seems to have become a culturally permissible way of expressing one’s despair.”
Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker
But as much as this may seem like a reprieve for families that have endured so much uncertainty and trauma, it may be one of the exact same reasons why cases of this particular syndrome only develop in Sweden.
“[W]hen their visa is denied and they’re told they have to go back to their home country, the fact that they actually had a good life in Sweden is in striking contrast to what they would be going back to,” Samuelson says.
Thankfully, there does seem to be a cure. As mystifyingly as it began, a child’s case of resignation syndrome starts to improve when the child comes to understand the family’s immigration status. As the family is allowed to stay in Sweden and achieve some form of stability, the child gradually begins to show signs of life, starting to eat, move or speak on their own once again.
While there is still much experts do not understand about this phenomenon, its existence can remind us of the fragility of safety and the importance of showing compassion to others, especially during their most uncertain times.
If you want to learn more about resignation syndrome,“Life Overtakes Me” is available to watch on Netflix.