Ghost Sickness among Native Americans

Ghost Sickness is a culture bound syndrome that occurs among Native American tribes, originating from the Navajo. People that are preoccupied and possessed by the deceased are considered to have Ghost Sickness. Its symptoms include general weakness, loss of appetite, feeling suffocated, having recurring nightmares, and an everlasting feeling of terror. It is believed that if the deceased did not get proper burial rights, their spirit would be doomed to remain on the living plane, staying to torture the living.

The biological features of this disease are mostly psychological.  The afflicted person is at obsessed with death or a deceased person whom they believe is causing their affliction. They have nightmares and other sleep disturbances, anxiety, a sense of danger, hallucinations, and confusion. Other biological symptoms include weakness and fatigue, lowered appetite and other digestion problems, dizziness, fainting, and even loss of consciousness.  In some cases, there is a great feeling of depression as well.

Native American culture has a world-view that is cyclical rather than a cause-and-effect worldview.  What this means is that all events affect each other, regardless of when the event occurs; past, present, or even future. Considering this cultural world-view, ghost sickness can be better understood.  By not practicing proper burial and mourning rituals, the deceased cannot be at peace in their new spiritual plane.  Consequently, the deceased causes physical and mental problems for the living. Then, this person suffering from ghost sickness does not practice more rituals, subsequently causing the inability for the deceased to be at peace.

Individual aspects of the disease are incredibly important here.  First, the sufferer is obsessed with death or a certain deceased person.  This may be a person of kin who recently passed, a mate, or even a lost ancestor. It is said that many Native Americans who suffer from Ghost Sickness are actually suffering from a complicated grieving process. The sufferer begins to have nightmares and dreams, then later feel queasy and the physical and psychological symptoms set in.  In some aspect this person must also be somewhat susceptible to depression as well.  The person must also believe in the dead and their voices in order to be afflicted by Ghost Sickness.

The only known treatment for Ghost Sickness is rituals that are performed by the Navajo tribe members. The religious leaders will perform rituals to eliminate the all consuming thoughts of the dead. Other treatments may include anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medicines, but this only occurs if the patient is brought to a doctor in Western medicine.

Black Magus. Navajo Ghost Sickness. Posted May 3, 2012. Accessed July 19, 2013.

Cross, Terry L. Relational Worldview Model. National Indian Child Welfare Association. Accessed July 19,

Opler, M.E. and Bittle, W.E. The Death Practices and Eschatology of the Kiowa Apache. Southwestern
Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 4. Accessed July 19, 2013.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Tyler Kavanagh says:

    Culture to me is a tough concept to fully define or classify for the main reason is it can be looked at completely different from one person to another, from either a very broad view or even more of a narrower approach. To me, it is a group of people or society for which they are classified as a whole by the things that seems normal to them, that may not be normal to a different group of people, whether it be by their actions, rituals, beliefs, or behaviors. Almost anything that is not related to biological inheritance can play into how a culture or society is evaluated. To me Ghost Sickness is a Culture Bound Syndrome (CBS) because it’s contained mainly to the Native American culture originating from the Navajo. Even though most of the symptoms associated with with sickness are very common from culture to culture, the Native Americans have their own treatments/rituals and ways of dealing with this. As for if this was looked at from a different culture one that particularly uses Western medicine, the treatments would be very different, obvious with interventions of drugs being the primary source of care. Although most cultures go through a grieving process with associated deaths, there are some cultures that actually celebrate ones life almost from the other side of the spectrum while there’s still remorse it’s just a completely different view point that symptoms might not even arise from.

  2. Angela Palmer says:

    Dear Amber,
    I really enjoyed this post. Some of my favorite novels when I was a teen were ones about Native Americans, I really enjoy their culture. Hearing about ghost sickness really interests me, I believe you’re right it’s probably part of their grieving process, but for some reason I’m inclined to believe the other side too, that it’s the spirit hanging around as well. I believe in final farewells or a spirit of a loved one watching over you. I would define culture as the beliefs you were raised on, the beliefs of religion and morale. I believe this is a CBS, because this culture is raised to believe in spirits. If you are raised within this culture, you are going to be inclined to believe that your loved one’s spirit is the one causing your depression and anxiety. I believe this CBS is more positive than negative. If this is how they grieve then that’s fine. Everyone needs to grieve you can’t hold it in, that’s unhealthy. It is negative though too, thinking that your loved one would cause you harm is also unhealthy. I think your loved one is still there, but in a peaceful way. Ghost sickness would be explained in our culture exactly as Amber said, it’s just the grieving process and to me, an American, I think it’s just your loved one being at peace, saying goodbye, and watching over you.

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