Ghost Sicknesses Among American Indians

“All illness is an illness of the spirit that manifests of the spirit in the body, mind, emotions and we all carry within our souls the capacity to heal ourselves.”(2) This explanation is primarily how the American Indians and Alaska Nations view any form of illness. They believe in a worldview of wellness that consists of social, mental, physical and spiritual entities that must remain in harmony to achieve good health. This balance is also dependent on the appreciation of the internal and external environments. By this logic all the events are related to each other.

Ghost sicknesses in the American Indian and Alaska Nations (AIAN) is a culture-bound syndrome that is described by its symptoms as weakness, dizziness, fainting, anxiety, hallucinations, confusion, and loss of appetite from the action of evil forces. (1) A common subtype of ghost sickness is Chidnon which is a unique expression of distress amongst these peoples. There are many different translations of these types and sicknesses among nations but they are fundamental the same affliction. Essentially when comparing it to the western culture’s explanatory model it is classified as mental illness. The way in which the tribes label mental illness is a supernatural possession, imbalance and disharmony with inner and outer forces and expression of a special gift or phase of terminal illness. The concept of mental illness amongst these peoples is said to have been introduced and forced upon them dating back to the period in which Christianity was also imposed upon them. Along with this classification came some degree of stigma with the illnesses. It is important to also note that not all tribes use the same explanatory model so some variation with treatment, stigma and classification of illness does occur. Some tribes attached a heavy negative social stigma to mental illness, but the most common view amongst tribes is to not make distinctions between mental and physical and misbehavior. Different situations are attached to mental illness such as suicide and alcohol and substance abuse.

Again, many tribes practice traditional healings toward sickness because it encompasses their views of a worldview appreciation and connection. Western practices sometimes have been adopted for acute symptoms but never the fundamental causes. Western physicians do not provide quality care to their standards which is largely explained by the historical conflict between the two worlds. The ghost sicknesses are not even acknowledged by western medicine. Traditional healers are taught to understand the balances of a patient’s relational world. It is imperative to focus on the story of the patient and not the causes or the symptoms of the affliction. Healing must be through understanding the whole situation that resulted in such an imbalance. After the patient and healer have understood the situation and chief complaint a ceremony is conducted to “fight the illness” out of the body and restore balance. Ancestral models are also incorporated here because it is not uncommon to contact or hear voices of deceased relatives during ceremony. (2)

1.) Paniagua, Cuellar and F.A. “Culture-bound Syndromes, Cultural Variations, and Psychopathology.” Accessed July 21, 2013.

2.) Grandbois, Donna. “Stigma of Mental Illness among American Indian and Alaska Native  Nations: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” Accessed July 21, 2013.  f895-42b2-9fd5-00eee64ca909%40sessionmgr112&vid=2&hid=120

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Zack Riem says:

    The culture that is represented is the native American Indians and Alaska Nations, who are affected by a CBS that includes them being possessed by supernatural spirits and suffer many anxiety and panic attack like symptoms. I believe that this is a valid CBS, there are many reasons why; first the high amount of substance abuse and health related problems with American Indians in today’s culture. Their diets could have affect on mental capacity under distress. Next the added stress in today’s world from modern culture moving in upon their culture could help trigger episodes that are genetically unique to them. Episodes of odd behavior such as these symptoms are common with other native indigenous people, mostly who live in Polar Regions. Another reason these symptoms could arise among this population is where they live, intense heat from deserts or extreme cold in arctic areas make it more demanding for a person’s body to function properly. Many years of physical labor in intense extremes can be harmful especially with lack of hydration; brain function is depleted with lack of proper nourishment, sleep and hydration. If this group is genetically prone for mental dysfunction, a trigger or cause must be prevalent in the affected cultures surroundings that makes it unique to them.

  2. obrienry says:

    Culture in my opinion is a certain social/ ethnic group that shares similar characteristics. Culture is strongly related to and based on location of the people and the beliefs and practices that are specific to those people. Ghost sickness is prevalent among Native Americans and its symptoms include confusion, weakness, and dizziness and they are all said to come about by the actions of evil forces. There are a couple of reasons why I do not believe this should be characterized as a culture bound syndrome. The first is that these types of illness translate into many things around the world but are essentially the same affliction. The Western culture characterizes this as mental illness, so I believe that it is a disadvantage to all the characterize this as a culture bound syndrome, that may limit some of the medical treatment of this disease. In believing that this type of disease is simply a culture thing, you are limiting the research and help you can do to a much smaller number of people rather than just claiming that it is just a flat out disorder. I like the point in this post where you state that it is important to focus on the story of the patient and not the causes or symptoms of the affliction.

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