Ghost Sickness with the Navajo

Ghost sickness is a culture-bound syndrome among various Native American tribes and some parts of Asia. Some tribes believe that people who are obsessed with the dead can exhibit symptoms synonymous with being sick such as dizziness, nausea, fainting spells, and loss of appetite. Other mental effects may also be witnessed such as anxiety, shortness of breath, and depression.

An article by Dr. Robert Putsch describes ghost sickness as both a way of dealing with dead loved ones and as an illness that lacks any formal terminology in Western medicine. He also says that there is real evidence that we, as humans, have a “self-destructive impulse” while mourning the passing of others. Dr. Putsch believes that this is a major facet of the disease and wanted to study the religious and therapeutic aspects of this illness in different cultures around the world. He studied three cases of documented ghost illness. The first case involved a Navajo woman, the second a Salish woman, and the third a Hmong refugee from Laos. This post will focus on the biological, cultural, and individual dimensions of the Navajo woman’s illness and her treatment.

The Navajo woman’s illness included post-partum depression to the point of suicidal tendancies and the formation of non-cancerous breast tissue before and after the birth of her first child. The child was born after five years of infertility and almost six years after the death of her father. The woman had been experiencing very bad dreams since the incident. Her mother, believing that the patient was somehow fixed with the father’s death, directed the daughter to try to free herself through Navajo spirit ceremonies. Although the woman acknowledged that the ceremonies did not alleviate her symptoms, she does believe with absolute certainty that they did cure her infertility.

The treatment of the Navajo woman focused on trying to address the biological problems she was having as well as the family’s traditional cultural opinions surrounding ghost sickness. The first part of the therapy involved scheduling the patient for cosmetic surgery to remove the excess breast tissue as the patient believed the mis-formation made her “look ugly”. The patient was advised to wait to proceed with the surgery until all other methods of resolution could be applied. The second part involved diagnostic testing of her endocrine system to ensure that hormone levels were within the proper limits. The third part of the therapy involved discussing her and her husband’s different beliefs and traditions in detail. The husband was Catholic, but the patient was traditional Navajo. The discussion was done to resolve mis-understood tension between the couple surrounding the raising of their child with both belief systems. The husband eventually agreed to address his wife’s problems with her from a Navajo perspective. The fourth part of therapy involved the couple scheduling a special Navajo ceremony to stop her bad dreams.

Dr. Putsch believes that the dreams of the woman illustrated her desire to die, or more accurately, be killed. He notes that while Western medicine seeks to label the illness as a psychological problem, the Navajo believe that it is a physical problem. He also says that the Navajo traditionally did not have an explanation for natural death and that death was a result of something bad (in a sense, people do not die; they are killed). This may have informed the Navajo belief system around dreams and the physical symptoms seen in those that have been touched by death in their families. While this only a single case, it is clear that both the cultural and physical demands of the patient must be met in order for them to achieve proper health.


Pursch, Robert W. “Ghost Illness: A Cross-Cultural Experience with the Expression of a Non-Western Tradition in Clinical Practice.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 202 (1988): 6-26. Accessed July 17th, 2014. doi: 10.5820/aian.0202.1988.6

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. Emily Tassoni says:

    Culture is the manifestation of learned behavior and beliefs that result in one’s perspective on their surroundings. These behaviors and beliefs are learned through family, friends, observation and individual experience. Environmental factors such as climate and government of the area one lives can also have effects on one’s culture. Culture is expressed through dress, art, music, and ritual activities. I think that in some cases it is useful to use cultural standards to define diseases, which can result in culture bound syndromes. While some culture bound syndromes are viewed as one culture’s individual perspective on a widely distributed disease, some are very unique to that culture and have a combination of symptoms found only in that culture. In some cases, traditions or beliefs specific to one culture are often what lead to the development of syndromes, which makes them bound that that particular culture. When diagnosing a CBS, the diagnosis may be made more easily if the suspected condition is a CBS, it may also lead to misdiagnosis of a similar, non-culture bound syndrome. Treating a CBS usually requires a ritual or traditional treatment from that culture. This can be beneficial when combined with some medical techniques and treatment can be successful. However, sometimes these treatments are hard to find/execute, and should they fail, medical treatments alone are often unsuccessful which eliminates many treatment options. Ghost syndrome in Western Society would be viewed as grief after the loss of a loved one, which can sometimes develop into bereavement-related depression. In a non-Navajo American this depression is due to extreme sadness and denial an inability to cope with the loss, but the Navajo have a completely different view on death and therefore the cause and treatment of their symptoms becomes more complex and culturally specific.

Leave a Reply