Ghost Illness amongst Native Americans

Ghost illness is a culture bound syndrome where spirits or “ghosts” are viewed to be directly or indirectly linked to a person’s illness.  Ghost illnesses are very common in many Native American cultures and this belief still hold true today in many Native American communities.  In western societies we have witnessed increased mortality amongst people who are grieving the death of a loved one and this is especially true when the loved one was a husband or wife.  This high mortality of grieving persons would be considered a type of ghost illness in many Native American cultures.  With these deaths it is believed that the dead loved one caused the death of the person left behind in order to bring them back together.[1]  It is also believed that the spirit of deceased loved ones can cause disease and illness to the living.

Dr. Robert Putsch outlines several clinical examples of patients who have suffered from ghost illness in an article “Ghost Illness; A cross-Cultural Experience with the Expression of a Non-Western Tradition in Clinical Practice.”  Here, Dr. Putsch outlines patients suffering from ghost illness from the Navajo and Salish cultures.

One clinical description was of a 27-year-old Navajo woman who was suffering from bilateral accessory breasts, postpartum depression and severe family problems.  After giving birth to her first child the woman complained of experiencing severe pain and swelling in both armpits.  Her family doctor advised her that her pain was caused by the “enlargement of accessory breast tissue, and he had counseled her to avoid breast-feeding in an attempt to further enlargement.”[2]  She was also experiencing postpartum depression and feared that she was “going crazy.”  After giving birth to her child the woman began having dreams where she was being visited by her dead father.  In the Navajo belief system the visitation of the dead in a person’s dream is a form of bad luck and these dreams may be followed by illness or even death.  The woman believed the inflammation to her breasts and depression was caused by her dead father and this belief was also shared by her family and community.  Her family also felt that some of her “crazy” actions, like driving too fast, were also caused by her dead father.  Medical staff treated her inflamed breasts and depression with medication.  They treated her illness through the use of family counselors and eased her mothers and husbands concerns of being harmed by the dead.

This paper was twenty pages and I found it difficult to adequately outline it in 400 words but what I found interesting was the integration of the biomedical system into their belief system.  At no point did the woman question the diagnosis made by the doctors.  What the woman and her community gave was the reason why she is experiencing the disease.  They seemed to only fill in the blank often left out by bio-medicine.  Western culture does this as well with many diseases.  People seem to assume that a person suffering from lung cancer was a smoker or that all people with aides are homosexuals.  I think this shows the individualism within our culture indicating that we see disease as being the fault of a person living a certain lifestyle.  The Navajo see illness as an attack from an outside source.  The person affected with illness in the Navajo culture is seen as a victim.


[1] Robert W. Putsch, “Ghost Illness; A Cross-Cultural Experience with the Expression of a Non-Western Tradition in Clinical Practice,” Drumlummon Views, Fall 2006-Winter-2007, accessed 7-20-12, http://www.drumlummon.org/images/DV_vol1-no3_PDFs/DV_vol1-no3_Putsch.pdf. Page 127.

[2] Putsch, Page 127.

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