Teens say Tourette's brought on during lockdown has changed their life

Teens say Tourette's brought on during lockdown has changed their life

06/04/2021

How lockdown has sparked ‘explosion’ of Tourette’s among teenage girls: Fuelled by pandemic anxiety, young women are developing verbal tics and uncontrollable spasms – and TikTok could be fuelling the spread

  • WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS SWEARING
  • Growing number of young girls have hit tic disorders like over Tourette’s last year
  • Leonie Green and Georgie Yiannis, both 13, developed tics during the pandemic
  • Becca Braccialle became influencer after being diagnosed with Tourette’s at 21
  • Experts believe stress of lockdown has lead to suffering verbal and physical tics
  • Some claim tics may be made worse due to young people posting clips online

That Saturday morning started like any other day in lockdown – until Lucy Green heard strange sounds coming from her 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom.

When she popped her head around the door, she saw that Leonie was still asleep, but seemed to be having some kind of seizure.

‘It was terrifying,’ says Lucy. ‘She was making a variety of squeals, bleats and hums which I’d never heard come out of her mouth before. Her face and body were twitching too.

‘When I woke Leonie up, the movements and noises only got worse. She struggled to speak.

Scroll down for video: Contains swearing 


Georgie Yiannis, (pictured left ) 13, developed tics during the pandemic while Becca Braccialle (pictured right) became an influencer after being diagnosed with Tourette’s at 21 last Autumn

Leonie Green, 13, (pictured with mum Lucy) began having verbal tics and involuntary movements during the pandemic and was officially diagnosed her in December

‘We tried some deep breathing and it took 45 minutes for her body to calm down but she was still making weird noises.’

Over the next few weeks, Leonie’s involuntary words and movements – also known as tics – became more severe.

‘First she kept saying ‘beetroot’ every few sentences. Then it moved to ‘Baa, I’m a sheep. Put me in the garden!’, says Lucy, 34.

Gradually, they became more offensive.

‘Leonie’s sentences would be interrupted with random swear words, as well as things like ‘9/11′ with the noise of a crashing airplane.’

Since that day last September, the teenager has been in the grip of Tourette’s Syndrome, an underlying neurological condition that her doctors believe surfaced recently due to the stress of the pandemic.

As well as verbal outbursts, Leonie’s tics trigger her to hit herself and head-bang so that her face and body are also covered in bruises. She is pictured with mum Lucy 

And worryingly, Leonie is one of a growing number of young girls hit by such tic disorders over the last year.

Until the outbreak of Covid-19, boys with Tourette’s outnumbered girls by four to one. Around four to six adolescent females who suddenly developed tics – or about eight to 16 a year – were referred to the two specialist London clinics every year.

But now a paper published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (March) has reported an ‘explosion’ in cases.

And according to psychiatrists at London’s Great Ormond Street and Evelina Children’s Hospitals, teen girls are being sent to them for treatment at a rate of three of four a week.

And experts have offered two alarming explanations for the rise.

First that the stress of lockdown over the last year has built up so much that for some girls it eventually finds its outlet through verbal and physical tics.

 Georgie Yiannis 13, (pictured with mum Jo) has stopped watching Tourette’s TikTokers since she developed the condition in July 

Georgie, pictured outside her Broxbourne home with mum Jo,  is yet to be given an official Tourette’s diagnosis, which requires continuous tics for over a year. For now, doctors are looking at psychological causes, anxiety caused by the stress of the pandemic and home-schooling

And secondly, tics may be made worse by a new trend of young people posting clips of themselves having these explosive episodes on social media.

On video sharing platform TikTok alone, the hashtag Tourette’s had racked up more than 2.9 billion views, thanks to influencers filming themselves doing everything from playing Jenga to singing nursery rhymes peppered with expletives.

Whatever form they take, tics can be disruptive and distressing. Verbally, they can range from noises like whistles, clicks and animal noises to obscenities.

Physically, they may include unpredictable muscle movements like head jolts, eye blinks, pulling faces, throwing things and legs suddenly giving way.

So why do they happen?

In some young people, tics are symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome, a genetic, neurological disorder that affects more than 300,000 people in the UK. Tourette’s usually starts at around the age of five or six and slowly gets worse in the teenage years before getting better in adulthood.

‘Paying attention to tics makes them worse,’ says Jo, 42, a children’s party entertainer from Broxbourne. The pair are pictured outside their Hertfordshire home

Jo’s hope is that when the country returns to normal post-pandemic, her daughter’s tics will ease 

Though its symptoms can be managed, to some degree, through medication, there is no cure.

The cause of Tourette’s is unknown- though it seems to be likely to be caused by an imbalance in the function of the chemical messengers in the brain that send signals between nerve cells, the condition is made worse by stress, which may be why more cases have surfaced during lockdown.

But worryingly similar tics are also surfacing more in a second group.

These are young girls with no family history or underlying medical condition but which emerge almost overnight as an expression of underlying anxiety.

Great Ormond Street psychiatrist Dr Holan Liang, a co-author of the recent paper, says: ‘This year we’ve seen many more girls suffering from functional tics, which more typically come on suddenly.

Asked why more girls are prone to this kind of psychologically-based tics, Dr Liang added: ‘We know girls and women are more predisposed to anxiety-related disorders and Covid has meant this is a time of extreme anxiety.’


Georgie, Leoni and Becca are among a growing number of young women have been hit by tic disorders over the last year due to the stress of the pandemic

The rise of cases among the Instagram generation has also resulted, perhaps inevitably, in a rise of young people sharing their experiences of tics online.

But while TikTok videos can help explain what it’s like to have a tic disorder, their popularity is a double-edged sword.

People with tics have always reported that being around others with the same makes them do it more. Now it seems the thousands of online videos, many presented as humorous challenges, are also creating a contagion effect.

For worried mother Lucy, a healthcare consultant from Nottingham, there is no doubt that the lockdown triggered the onset of Tourette’s in her daughter – and that watching others tic online makes Leonie tic more.

It’s a suspicion confirmed by a letter from Leonie’s consultant paediatrician, who officially diagnosed her in December, that also refers to ‘an explosion’ in cases linked to ‘the stress of lockdown.’

Today, as we chat, Leonie is articulate and friendly, and keeps talking through the steady streams of F-words and the occasional insults that pepper her conversation.

But at an age when she should be enjoying her independence, the onset of Tourette’s has been a blow.

As well as verbal outbursts, Leonie’s tics trigger her to hit herself and head-bang so that her face and body are also covered in bruises.

Another tic makes her throw whatever she’s holding, making it not only hard to hold a knife and fork to eat, but also to use a pen or computer for school work.

Leonie says: ‘It’s so frightening. I’ve gone from being able to speak completely normally to not being able to get a sentence out.

‘I can’t go out on my own now, in case I say something offensive that people will be offended by,’ says Leonie. ‘I get dirty looks all the time and hear other teens look at me and call me ‘weird.’

‘Even if I’m with my mum, strangers in shops have told me she should wash my mouth out for swearing and saying the N-word, even though that is not something I would ever say or think.’

‘Other people don’t understand I have no control over what I say. It’s like a sneeze I can’t stop.’

Although it’s likely the stress of lockdown brought on Leonie’s Tourette’s, she is now caught in a vicious circle now that she is returned to her large comprehensive school where she has to get used to the reaction of other pupils.

WHAT IS TOURETTE’S SYNDROME? 

Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological condition characterised by a combination of involuntary noises and movements called tics.

It usually starts during childhood and continues into adulthood. Tics can be either be vocal or physical.

In many cases Tourette’s syndrome runs in families and it’s often associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Tourette’s syndrome is named after the French doctor, Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described the syndrome and its symptoms in the 19th century. 

There’s no cure for Tourette’s syndrome, but treatment can help to control the symptoms. 

Source: NHS Choices

Leonie says: ‘Even though I am covered in bruises from hitting myself, when I went back to school other pupils have also accused me of faking it or putting it on for attention.

‘Or in class, other pupils have turned round to tell me not to be so annoying.

‘But they only have to put up with my tics for one lesson. I can never get away from them.’

‘The toll it takes on me is huge’, adds Leonie.

‘I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to be living with this for the rest of my life.’

‘I feel like I am trapped in someone else’s body in constant fear of what will come out next.’

But though Leonie is pleased there is a growing acceptance of Tourettes’ thanks to its soaring social media profile, she has now taken the decision to avoid watching such clips.

Her mother Lucy says: ‘They trigger her. If you get two people with Tourette’s in a room, they will set each other off. It works the same with the clips.

‘So although the videos give Leonie comfort she’s not alone, they also mean she gets new tics.

‘For instance, she started saying the name of the runner Usain Bolt out of the blue recently for no reason other than the fact she’d seen someone else with the same tic saying it.’

It’s the same reason Jo Yiannis’s daughter Georgie, also 13, has stopped watching Tourette’s TikTokers since she developed the condition in July.

‘Paying attention to tics makes them worse,’ says Jo, 42, a children’s party entertainer from Broxbourne, Herts.

‘When Georgie was aware of the tic videos on social media before she developed them. When she sees them, she tics more.’

So far Georgie is yet to be given an official Tourette’s diagnosis, which requires continuous tics for over a year. For now, doctors are looking at psychological causes, anxiety caused by the stress of the pandemic and home-schooling.

But just as with Lucy and Leonie, the tics started when Jo heard Georgie making strange squeaking noises one morning.

Becca, pictured outside her home, first had some small minor tics- occasional uncontrollable throat clearing and gasping noises brought on by the stress of crashing her car and sustaining minor injuries

‘At first, she just did a couple, which sounded a bit like the noise a fire alarm makes when it needs a new battery,’ she says.

But by that evening of that day, Georgie was having neck jolts and full body convulsions so severe she had to be taken to A&E by ambulance.

The next morning, while the physical tics had calmed, the squeaks had been replaced by animal noises, including pig oinks, though they change every week, though saying the word ‘bitch’ is popular. She calls me one all the time, but I know she does not mean it and just have to ignore it.’

Jo was so terrified for her child that within three days, she got an appointment for Georgie with a top neurologist.

‘After blood tests and an MRI scan, he told us there’s nothing wrong with Georgie’s brain. He said the tics had been brought on by the anxiety of lockdown.

‘Looking back, I think it was home-schooling that really stressed her out and not being able to see her friends

‘She felt overwhelmed and that she needed to be in the classroom to learn.’

‘The way her therapist also explains it is that it’s just like a jack in the box. When there’s a build up of tension over time, it can pop up.

Recently Georgie’s tics have become more physical.

However last year during lock-down, Becca says her tics got ‘100 percent worse’, due her anxiety around the virus

Jo says: ‘This week, she is jolting her head so much that it’s hard for her to put a fork in her mouth.

‘They hurt and she cries out of sheer frustration. She just wants to be able to live the life of a normal girl her age.

‘At the moment, I can’t risk her coming home from school at the moment on her own in case someone attacks her because they think she’s calling them a name.’

Jo’s hope is that when the country returns to normal post-pandemic, Georgie will too.

‘But I worry that if it doesn’t pass, how will she be able to drive or cook when she’s older? Will she need full-time care?’

However the good news is that according to experts at Great Ormond Street, most cases of psychologically based tics will fade with time.

They say the best approach is to educate families and schools that the most tics are harmless and not draw attention to them,

They also advise keeping an eye out for any bullying at school which could increase the stress that causes the tics in the first place.


Becca then joined a growing community of influencers filming their condition while attempting tasks like karaoke, crafting and waxing legs. She now has social media following of more than a quarter of a million 

If that doesn’t work, some anti-anxiety medicines and counselling may also help.

However consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron says even if the causes are psychological, rather than neurological, tic disorders need to be taken seriously and not be dismissed as psychosomatic.

‘Tics can be a completely unconscious outlet for the stress and frustration young girls are feeling. It is totally real for them.

‘If they are psychological, they can be approached by tackling the root cause of the anxiety.

Suzanne Dobson of charity Tourette’s Action, who have seen views of their advice pages soar over lockdown, agrees that whatever the cause, tic disorders are distressing.

‘The parents are frightened. The children are frightened.

‘But whatever the reason for a ticking disorder, all types should be taken just as seriously.

‘It’s likely only a small number will have Tourette’s. For the others there are likely to be lots of different causes, some related to anxiety from watching the effects of the pandemic, like seeing a lot of death and illness.’

For Becca Braccialle, from Spalding, Lincolnshire, there has been one silver lining after she was diagnosed with Tourette’s last Autumn at the age of 21.

That is her social media following of more than a quarter of a million.

Although Becca first had some small minor tics- occasional uncontrollable throat clearing and gasping noises brought on by the stress of crashing her car and sustaining minor injuries just after she passed her test two years ago, they were minor.

However last year during lock-down, Becca says her tics got ‘100 percent worse’, due her anxiety around the virus- and started to include repetitive words, as well as random movements like obscene gestures and throwing things.

Becca, who was working in a supermarket at the time, says: ‘While I was working, I started coming out with random words like ‘savage’ and ‘wash.’

‘I also started swearing and sticking my fingers up at customers at random times and even at objects.

‘When I was on the till, I even called a customer ‘a nonce’, but luckily he didn’t speak English so he didn’t understand what I was saying.’

‘But generally the customers did think it was strange, especially when one day when I was loading up the shelves, I started swearing the sausages and threw them in the fridge.’

‘Everyone was looking at me. After that, I realised it wasn’t a job I could keep doing and I handed my notice in in August.’

Unable to work, two months later Becca then joined a growing community of influencers filming their condition while attempting tasks like karaoke, crafting and waxing legs.

Becca rejects concerns that such videos encourage others to develop real disorders they can’t control, insisting: ‘Just because you’ve seen someone do it on TikTok doesn’t mean you’ll do it too’


In December alone, she clocked up almost 10,000 TikTok followers and says she also uploads ‘educational and serious videos’ to help people understand the condition

In December alone, she clocked up almost 10,000 TikTok followers alone.

Becca says: ‘I love to sing so I did a couple of videos of me singing Christmas Carols in which my tics come out with obscene rhymes. It was like my tics were on predictive text with rude words.

‘That’s what grabbed the attention. But then once people followed me, I put up educational and serious videos too.

‘Some people have said in the comments I am faking it, which really broke my heart.

‘But now more people understand Tourette’s better, it’s nice to have people cheering me on when I am having one of those hard days. It’s the only way I have got some sort of happiness out of this. It helps me laugh about it all.’

However, there have also been a wave of copycat accounts – and Becca has posted videos telling children off posting clips faking tics on TikTok.

‘They pretend to get likes. It’s really frustrating because they are mocking a disability.’

But Becca rejects concerns that such videos encourage others to develop real disorders they can’t control.

‘Just because you’ve seen someone do it on TikTok doesn’t mean you’ll do it too,’ she says.

‘If that was the case, then everyone would tic because millions of people have seen these videos now.’

But while some girls with tics may see their symptoms fade as life returns to normal, Leonie, who is diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, has no choice but to rely on high doses of Clonidine – an anti-epilepsy drug – to try and calm her condition.

And rather than easing her stress, she says the return to school – and the judgement of her peers – meant that her condition has only worsened.

For her mother Lucy, her daughter’s illness is an example of the price the younger generation have paid for the pandemic.

‘Overnight, Leonie has gone from being a child who was never a problem, and who never swore, to one who has no control over what comes out of her mouth.

‘Tourette’s is very socially isolating and there’s no cure. It can only be managed.

‘For most people the isolation of lockdown will soon be over. But for Leonie, that isolation will go on and on.’ 

Tanith Carey is the author of ‘What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents’

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