Speaking in a recent interview with the Lutheran Press Service, Israeli psychologist Gregory Katz from the Kfar Shaul Medical Center in Jerusalem says the syndrome is becoming less common as the years go by. “The majority of patients that come into the psychiatric clinic with religious delusions were already suffering from psychological problems before they arrived in the holy city.” He says that those most susceptible these days are extremely religious persons who are ninety-eight percent Christian. They normally come from remote rural areas and in most cases and are traveling abroad for the first time in their lives.I'm glad to hear that fewer people are suffering from this, but I can't say that I've noticed people becoming much better at distinguishing fantasy from reality. In any case, the "reality" of a vision is frequently closely related to its social construction in a community. Maybe it's better to say that people are becoming more sophisticated in contextualizing their religious experiences outside of mainstream religious settings.
Katz distinguishes two types of illness: One where seemingly normal people arrive in the city and undergo a sort of religious conversion, whereby they actually become a biblical figure. Most of these persons are Pentecostals from rural regions in the USA and Scandinavia. One one occasion, Katz says, he had three Virgins Mary at once sharing a single room. Then there is the more worrisome version, where genuinely disturbed persons flock to the city to act out their preexisting complexes. Even when visitors do succumb to the former phenomenon, treatment is relatively easy. A few days of sedatives and talk therapy usually do the trick. The best thing, of course, is to get the person away from the city and back to their normal environment.
The syndrome used to be as common as measles and was particularly visible during Jewish and Christian holidays. Between 1980 and 1993, the clinic treated some 1,200 patients suffering from some form of the disorder. In the mid-90s, the clinic’s director, Dr. Yair Bar El, studied the records of the 470 visitors from all over the world who ended up being hospitalized. He discovered that 66 percent were Jews, 33 percent were Christians, and one percent were without any religious affiliation.
“Today we usually only get patients with the Jerusalem Syndrome once a year,” Katz said. “Before the new millennium started, we would get two or three patients annually.” What explains this precipitous drop? Katz believes it has to do with the declining religiosity among tourists, coupled with their greater sophistication. With the spread of electronic communications technology and low-cost air travel, people are simply much better informed and better traveled than before. They also draw a clearer distinction between fantasy and reality. While society at one time saw religious visions and cases of possession as being within the bounds of “normality,” Katz says, “we have now become so rational that we regard people with religious visions as being ill.”
More on Jerusalem Syndrome here.