W3 Activity: Ghost Sickness in Native American Society

Ghost Sickness:

“A culture-bound syndrome found in many American Indian tribes, characterized by thanatophobia, necromania, nightmares (1), asthenia, feelings of danger, anorexia, fainting, dizziness, anxiety, and hallucinations, the symptoms often being attributed by the afflicted person to witchcraft” (Ghost Sickness, 2015)

The culture bound illness I decided to research was ghost sickness. Ghost sickness is a culture bound syndrome that originated from the Navajo tribe, but is also found in other Native American tribes across the country,mainly in the Southwest and Southern Plains. Ghost sickness is thought to be the “possession” of one’s body by an individual who has been deceased from the world resulting in the development of elaborate rituals to defend against said spirits. It can be characterized by biological symptoms/features including but not limited to general weakness, lack of appetite, feeling of terror and despair, nightmares or night terrors, and the overwhelming feeling of suffocation.

It is thought to be an onset of loneliness and mourning of loved ones of the individual who has died, causing the spirit to stay on Earth rather than ascend to heaven and the sky. Because of this, the spirit is thought to leave behind rage and evil to wander the world. However, to affect a certain individual, it is thought to be brought on by obsession of death or the person that has been deceased/the individual who is causing their affliction.

Looking at it in a cultural dimension, the Native American culture that is has been connected to views this syndrome to be holistic in nature: the past, the present, and the future having an effect on a situation. The cycle must stop from the starting point, in other words the past, which will not continue and end up to affect the future, or the individual plagued by ghost sickness. In doing so certain measures must be taken to ensure that this cannot happen by means of proper burial rituals. In doing this, the spirit will ascend into heaven and leave no trace of evil on the world, being fully and utterly at peace.

Finally, looking at it from an individual aspect, the key point of this is the obsession of the deceased for the individual plagued. The suffer becomes obsessed with the individual who has passed, allowing the evil spirit to attach itself to their body. Most instances are believed to be a loved one, intimate or ancestral/kin. Looking back at the biological feature, the individual is usually affected by means of nightmares and night terrors prior to the onset syptoms of anxiety, depression, hallucentation, confusion, and feeling of suffocation. However, looking at it from a western standpoint, many doctors and psychologists believe that is it actually manic depressive disorder related to the loss of a loved one. It is believed that because the Native American tribes did not have a specific name for the illness at hand, the created this culture bound syndrome to explain the onset of depression after loosing a loved one.

Overall, the main point to take away from this sickness is to have a proper grieving process, which is important in any society.

Ghost Sickness 2015. 4th ed. Oxford University Press. (Accessed July 20, 2016)

Jackson, Yo. 2006. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2006. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (Accessed July 20, 2016).

2 thoughts on “W3 Activity: Ghost Sickness in Native American Society

  1. Hi Tess!
    In my own words, I would define culture as the traditions, ideas, and events that a collective group of people shares. I do think that Ghost Sickness should be regarded as a CBS. The way that American Indian tribes attribute the physical and emotional symptoms to an evil spirits possessing is a key contributor in my opinion of Ghost Sickness being a CBS. The symptoms of lack of appetite, fatigue, and despair are usually pretty common among family or friends of someone who has recently died. However, the feelings of suffocation, weakness, and fainting seem to separate Ghost Sickness from general mourning of a loved one.
    An advantage to classifying Ghost Sickness as a CBS is that when treating the sickness, cultural traditions can be taken into account. It can be treated in a respectful way towards Native American rituals rather than solely from a medical standpoint. Also, when ensuring a proper traditional burial, it may give an affected individual more peace of mind, and a healthier outcome in turn.
    In Western medicine, as you stated, Ghost Sickness falls into the category of manic-depressive disorder related to the loss of a loved one. Westernized medicine tends to approach sickness in the biological sense and focuses less on any spiritual reasoning behind why these symptoms are occurring.
    Have a great week,

  2. To me, culture is what makes groups of people different from each other. Culture is an encompassing folder of a society’s traditions, foods, clothing, languages, and beliefs. I think that ghost sickness should be considered a culture bound illness as Native American tribes often believe in the influences of good and bad spirits on their health. People with ghost sickness generally have symptoms including a lack of appetite, weakness, night terrors, despair, and feeling of suffocation. These symptoms sound similar to those of depression, and ghost sickness is said to be an onset of loneliness and mourning. This is then believed to make the ghost of the departed to unhappily stay on earth. While I do think this can be classified as a medical illness, I think it should be considered a culture bound illness due to the legends that survive the sickness. The tribes also have their own holistic ways of curing the sickness without the use of prescription medications. As you said, from a western standpoint, this is considered to be manic depressive disorder related to the loss of a loved one. I think that by using cultural remedies to cure the illness, the person who was affected by the ghost sickness is more likely to make a full recovery and have a better mental state in the long run. I do not think the western method of medicating for manic depressive disorder is the right method, as every time someone dies, you’ll need the pills to cope; but by using the Native American holistic methods, I think that you’d eventually be able to cope and stop from falling into a depression every time someone passed away.

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