Sweden’s Mystery Illness: Resignation Syndrome

Recently, something strange has been occurring with the children of asylum seekers in Sweden.

Resignation Syndrome causes these children to become non-responsive.

The syndrome, also known as Uppgivenhetssyndrom in Swedish, causes children to stop walking, talking and eating. They assume a coma-like state, lying prone, with their eyes closed, disconnected from the world around them. They are fed via feeding tubes. Thus far, no known cases have been identified outside Sweden.

Doctors of the World’s Dr. Elisabeth Hultcrantz has treated over 40 children with Resignation Syndrome. She spends much of her time driving to different towns around Sweden providing consultations to refugee families for free.

© BBC

One of Dr. Hultcrantz’s cases is 9 year-old Sophie. Sophie and her family fled the USSR in 2015 after extortion by a local mafia. Sophie witnessed her parents being violently beaten and her father was kidnapped. After his release, the family fled to Sweden and sought asylum. When the Swedish Migration Board told the family that they would be unable to remain in the country, Sophie fell into the coma-like state that is now associated with Resignation Syndrome.

“I think it is a form of protection, this coma they are in.”

– Dr. Elisabeth Hultcrantz, Doctors of the World Sweden

Upon observing Sophie, Dr. Hultcrantz described her blood pressure as “normal”, but as having “a high pulse rate, so maybe she’s reacting to so many people coming to visit her.” Dr. Hultcrantz worries that Sophie does not open her mouth, which could be dangerous if there are complications with her feeding tube. “When I explain to the parents what has happened, I tell them the world has been so terrible that Sophie has gone into herself and disconnected the conscious part of her brain,” says Dr. Hultcrantz. “I think it is a form of protection, this coma they are in,” she adds.

The medical professionals who treat children with Resignation Syndrome believe that trauma is a key factor in the onset of the syndrome. Many of the children affected have witnessed extreme violence against family members or have been living in extremely insecure environments in their home countries and after arriving in Sweden.

“The medical professionals who treat children with Resignation Syndrome believe that trauma is a key factor in the onset of the syndrome.”

Resignation Syndrome was first identified in the late 1990s, and from 2003 to 2005 there were more than 400 reported cases. However, just in the last two years, there have been 169 known cases. The syndrome appears to affect children from particularly vulnerable communities, such as refugees from the Balkans, Yazidis from Iraq and children from the persecuted Roma minority. As of today, Resignation Syndrome has only been observed in Sweden, but symptoms resembling the syndrome have been recorded in other contexts such as Nazi concentration camps in World War II.

Many doctors believe that the road to recovery for these children is dependent on building a sense of security and positive resolution of their families’ asylum claims in Sweden. Described as the most “refugee-friendly” country in Europe, Sweden took in more refugees per capita than any other country in the continent. In 2015, 163,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden. However, there are fears that Swedes will become less welcoming of refugees as concerns about overburdened welfare systems and scant public resources deepen.