Ghost Sickness in Native American Culture

The “culture-bound syndrome” that I decided to discuss is Ghost Sickness among Native Americans. This sickness is generally attributed to the ghosts of the deceased or to witchcraft. The people who suffer from this disease have symptoms of nightmares, a feeling of terror, and weakness. Also, dizziness and fainting can occur. Studies show that often the people who suffer from this disease are found to be very preoccupied with death or a deceased loved one.  It can be very psychological, leading to depression, anxiety, and even hallucinations.

The disease is most likely caused by Native American belief that life is more cyclical than how Americans view it. They also believe that the the spirits and ghosts of the deceased may try to take someone with them. From a biological standpoint, this fear that is instilled in the people of these Native American tribes could cause anxiety when a loved one passes. Along with the grief that comes along with a death, anxiety can have many negative effects on the body, including symptoms that are described along with the disease. To many Western doctors, the cause and symptoms of the disease would most likely lead them to diagnose a sufferer of the disease with purely psychological trauma from the grief. Medications for anxiety would most likely be prescribed.

However, the Native Americans view this illness as a more spiritual issue. They treat the disease within the tribes, by performing elaborate rituals with a large family group in order to defend against the spirits of the deceased. They believe that the thoughts of the deceased and the spirits are consuming the sufferer and causing the symptoms so they must rid the person of the thoughts.

The treatment of the disease in our culture compared to Native American culture shows a huge contrast in the understanding and opinion on psychological disorders.


Hall, Lena. “Conceptions of Mental Illness: Cultural Perspectives and Treatment Implications.” Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship 1.1 (2014): n. pag. Conceptions of Mental Illness: Cultural Perspectives and Treatment Implications. Web. 18 July 2014.

Encyclopedia of Psychology (2000). Culture-Bound Disorders. (Vol. 2). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press Inc.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Drew Selden says:

    Culture to me is the beliefs, traditions, and ideals of a certain group of people that shape the way a person lives among that group of people. I think it can be considered a CBS because of the beliefs and traditions among the Native American culture and their view on the cycle of life. I think the advantages of labeling this as a cultural bound syndrome would be seen in the treatment and the social stigma from the affected. The treatment for those afflicted with ghost sickness would be easier to diagnose and maybe those afflicted wouldn’t be shunned or feared in their communities. On the other hand, a great disadvantage of labeling this as a CBS could potentially be a misdiagnosis, especially when the symptoms of ghost sickness are similar to many other psychological illnesses like depression and anxiety.
    I feel like the ghost sickness condition is awfully reminiscent of the type of feelings and emotions someone who just lost a loved one would feel. In Western culture I feel like this condition would be diagnosed as depression and treated as such. Depending on the individual, Western culture might also try to explain the symptoms as a type of multiple personality or borderline personality disorder.

  2. Meredith Joseph says:

    When I was looking up Culture Bound Syndromes I saw this one and thought it looked interesting. I never read over it, but your description is not what I thought it was going to be. I did not think it was going to be such a “normal” mental disorder, I thought it would be a very odd deeply cultured issue within a tribe. I think ghost sickness is really just sadness and fear from the death of loved ones. When these people take there fear to a higher level they may have a mental disorder that relates to the fear of dead people or afterlife. What makes this a culture bound syndrome is how the Native Americans handle death in their culture. Culture being the traditions and ways of a group of people in a specific area. Due to these Native Americans passing down the fears of the dead taking others with them these stories will instill fear in the next generation and the next. These thoughts on ghost sickness are part of the Native American culture. Their view on death is stronger than the American cultures view. The advantages of their view is that life is valued so much more, but the disadvantage is that there is such a great fear that comes along with the passing of their people.

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